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Black Theater Moments That Made History

June 18, 2020 by TodayTix
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Someone always has to be first, and many Black theater artists paved the way for an inclusive and diverse future for the industry. While there is still a long way to go, we wanted to take this time to celebrate the makers and productions who came before.

From shows like “Shuffle Along” and “The Wiz” to performers like Audra McDonald and Juanita Hall, Black theatre has set the stage for many historical and groundbreaking moments. We asked Broadway Black founder Drew Shade to share some shows and performers who stand out. Read more below!

Brandon Victory Dixon and the cast of “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed” on Broadway (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

“Shuffle Along”
“Shuffle Along” made significant progress for Black theater audiences and theatermakers alike, and it set a new standard by which future works would be measured. The show marked the first musical written by then-unknowns at the time Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Flournoy Miller, and Aubrey Lyles, and when the musical opened in 1921, it was the first on Broadway to feature syncopated jazz music, a trademark of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.

The musical made headway onstage and off, as it was among the first shows that would help lead to the desegregation of Broadway theaters in the 1920s. For the first time, Black audience members could sit in the orchestra, rather than being relegated to the balcony. The plot featured a sophisticated Black love story, rather than a comic one, and the show’s box office success proved that audiences would pay to see Black talent, helping legitimize the Black musical.

While the musical had revivals in 1932 and 1952, director George C. Wolfe reinvigorated the show with the original musical “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” which opened on Broadway in 2016. The cast featured Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Joshua Henry, and Adrienne Warren, and it was nominated for 10 Tony awards.

Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday and Shelton Becton as Jimmy Powers in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”
Billie Holiday was a trailblazing artist, and Audra McDonald’s portrayal of the iconic jazz singer in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” on Broadway in 2014 led to McDonald becoming the first performer to win a Tony Award in all four acting categories and made her the individual with the most Tony wins at six. Written by Lanie Robertson, “Lady Day” had its world premiere in 1986 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.

John Bubbles and Anne Brown in “Porgy and Bess” in 1935. (Photo courtesy the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts)

“Porgy and Bess”
Written by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, this classic Gershwin opera about a disabled street beggar Porgy who tries to save his love Bess from her abusive boyfriend is full of firsts for the Black theater community. Anne Brown, who originated the role of Bess in the original 1935 Broadway production, was the first Black vocalist to be admitted to Juilliard. Also in 1935, Eva Jessye, the first Black woman to receive international recognition as a professional choral conductor, was hired to be the show’s musical director. The musical’s opening number, “Summertime,” has an estimated 25,000 recordings since its release in the 1930s

Juanita Hall and John Kerr in “South Pacific.” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

“South Pacific”
In 1950, Juanita Hall became the first Black person to win a Tony Award when she took home the statue for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Bloody Mary in “South Pacific.” Writers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein personally chose Hall for the role, which is based on a real person whom James A. Michener (author of the novel the show is based on) met in Espiritu Santu in the South Pacific.

For the film adaptation, Juanita Hall’s singing voice was dubbed by another Black singer, Muriel Smith who originated the role of Bloody Mary in the West End. The character’s song “Happy Talk” is sometimes cut from productions of the show, citing some of the fake pidgin lyrics as racist.

Norm Lewis in “The Phantom of the Opera” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

“The Phantom of the Opera”
In 1990, Robert Guillaume became the first Black Phantom when he performed the role in the 1990 Los Angeles production, and Norm Lewis became the first Black actor to star in the titular role on Broadway in 2014. Jordan Donica is the first Black actor to play Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, and in 2016 Ali Ewoldt, an Asian-American actor, became the first woman of color to star as Christine Daae.

“The Phantom of the Opera” is Broadway’s longest running show, and it has grossed upwards of $6 billion world wide.

Stephanie Mills, center, and the original cast of “The Wiz”

The Wiz
“The Wiz” created a new form of musical theater that celebrated and championed Black artists. The Motown-inspired take on “The Wizard of Oz” opened on October 21, 1974 at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, and the musical premiered on Broadway in 1975.

“The Wiz” won seven Tony awards, including Best Musical, and the 1978 movie adaptation starred Diana Ross as Dorothy. Motown executives initially wanted Stephanie Mills to reprise her role in the movie, but Ross convinced the studio that she should play the lead. Tony winner André de Shields, who is currently in “Hadestown,” originated the role of the Wiz on Broadway.