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Meet the trailblazers in Black theatre history

February 12, 2021 by Jerald Raymond Pierce
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The farther back you look into Black history, the more difficult it becomes to pinpoint firsts. So much information has been lost or destroyed over the years. Still, Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate Black theatremakers and the many, often unsung, contributions they’ve made to the field.

Below you’ll find a list of some major firsts for Black theatremakers, from first companies to first plays to first award winners. These firsts span two centuries and some oft-forgotten (or at least under appreciated) moments in theatre history.

The African Company

Ira Aldridge as Aaron in ‘Titus Andronicus’ in 1852

The African Company is believed to be the first professional Black theatre group in America, with their theatre located in lower Manhattan. The theatre was founded during the 1820-21 season by William Henry Brown, a retired West Indian steamship steward who converted the second floor of his two-story house into a 300-seat theatre called the African Grove Theatre. The theatre’s early repertoire included pantomime, farce, and Shakespeare, including the season opening production of Richard III, among other theatrical offerings. 

The theatre lasted three years before it was burned down in 1823. Among the many artists affected by this event was Ira Aldridge, who had been one of the theatre’s principal actors as a teenager. Aldridge would wind up leaving the country and moving to England at the age of 18 due to a combination of the theatre burning down and assaults he suffered as part of racist attacks. Aldridge would go on to be honored as the U.K.’s first Black Shakespearean actor. The African Company, also known as the African Theatre, would close in 1824.

The Drama of King Shotaway

In addition to the founding of the African Company, William Henry Brown is also credited with writing and staging the first play by an African American, The Drama of King Shotaway, in 1823. The play was a historical drama based on the Second Carib War in St. Vincent in 1796, though the text was never published and has since been lost. Additionally, it’s unclear whether this was Brown’s first play, since a newspaper story from early in 1822 described him as “a dramatist for” the African Company, suggesting this may not have been Brown’s first play.

The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom

It wouldn’t be until 1858 that a Black playwright would have a play published. Writer William Wells Brown is credited with a series of firsts: first African American to publish a novel, first to publish a travel book, and first to publish a play, The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom

The play was a melodrama about two enslaved people who secretly marry. Brown himself was born into slavery to a Black mother and a white slaveholding father. Brown escaped in 1834, published his autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, by 1947, and started lecturing on abolition and temperance reform.

While Brown’s The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom may have been the first published, Angelina W. Grimké’s Rachel in 1916 is considered to be the first real success of a Black dramatist.

In Dahomey

‘In Dahomey’

Years before Shuffle Along would eventually take the Broadway stage, In Dahomey became the first African American-written musical comedy to play in a major Broadway theatre. The musical, with book by Jesse A. Shipp, lyrics by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and music by Will Marion Cook, originally opened in 1902 at the Grand Opera House in Stamford, Conn., before premiering at the New York Theater in February 1903. 

The three-act musical was originally created to feature the popular vaudevillians Bert Williams and George Walker. The musical only ran for 53 performances, however it opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London in May 1903 and ran for 251 performances. 

In Dahomey later became the title of a song written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for 1927’s Show Boat, though its inclusion in the musical has come and gone over the years, including the song being omitted from the 1946 revival and 1951 filmed versions of Show Boat.

Black Playwrights on Broadway

As for plays, a Black dramatist wouldn’t make it to a Broadway stage until the 1920s. Willis Richardson’s The Chip Woman’s Fortune, a one-act play, became the first non-musical written by a Black author to be produced on Broadway, followed by Garland Anderson’s Appearances becoming the first three-act play in 1925. 

The latter play, Anderson’s first, was written in three weeks after being inspired by a production of Channing Pollock’s The Fool. Originally titled Don’t Judge by Appearances, the play followed a courtroom trial of a bellboy falsely accused of raping a white woman. Anderson conducted readings on both coasts, trying to drum up support for his play as he struggled to find a producer. Eventually, with the support of people like Al Jolson and even President Calvin Coolidge, who Anderson visited as funding lagged, Anderson raised $15,000 toward the production which opened on Broadway in 1925.

That said, it was Langston Hughes’s 1935 play Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South that would become the first play from a Black playwright to receive widespread success. Lorraine Hansberry would then become the first Black woman playwright to have a play performed on Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun in 1959.

Juanita Hall

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

Actor and Singer Juanita Hall became the first African American to win a Tony Award when she won for Best Supporting Actress in 1950. Hall’s early career was spent singing and directing the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Chorus from 1935 to 1944. Five years later, Hall was cast to play Bloody Mary in Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein’s South Pacific at the Majestic Theatre. She would go on to play in over 1,900 performances of the musical before starting a brief career as a nightclub singer. Hall was again tapped to play the role in the 1958 film version of South Pacific.

Lloyd Richards

Lloyd Richards

The accomplishments of director Lloyd Richards are too numerous to name, from being the first African American to direct a Broadway play (Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun) to being credited for discovering August Wilson to his work as dean of Yale’s School of Drama and artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwrights Conference. Richards also served as president of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), of which he was a founding member, for a decade. 

When it comes to awards, Richards was the first Black director to be nominated for best direction of a play, though it wouldn’t be until the 1987 Broadway production of Fences that he would finally become the first Black director to win the category. Twelve years earlier, Geoffrey Holder became the first Black director to win best direction of a musical for the 1975 production of The Wiz.

Charles Gordone

Actor Charles Gordone, who won an Obie Award for his performance in an all-Black production of Of Mice and Men, wrote his award-winning play No Place to be Somebody based on inspiration from his time working as a waiter in a Greenwich Village tavern. The Civil Rights-era story follows a Black bartender who tries to outsmart a white mob syndicate. 

The play was produced off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in 1969 before moving to the Morosco Theatre on Broadway in 1971. Gordone’s play won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Gordone, who added an “e” to the end of his name after seeing another Charles Gordon on the Actors’ Equity Association member list, the first Black playwright to win the prestigious award. The play also holds the distinction of being the first off-Broadway play to win the Pulitzer.