Celebrating Black History Month in Theater
To celebrate Black History Month, we’re sharing facts all month long about African Americans who have made incredible contributions to the theater. Here are just some of the many notable players:
Ira Frederick Aldridge
Ira Frederick Aldridge originally started his career as a teen actor at the African Grove Theatre in New York, a theater by and for African-Americans in the 1800s. He grew to stardom once he moved to Europe and was the first well known black actor to star in Shakespeare’s Othello. He created a career filled with international fame from his portrayal of Shakespearean leads, including roles written for white actors, and used his fame to campaign for an end to slavery.
Bert Williams & George Walker
Bert Williams and George Walker were two of the most sought after comedians in America. In 1903 they starred in In Dahomey, the first all-black musical comedy on Broadway. Although the show still used black-face and vaudeville comedy, it was a major step in representation. The theme of the show even included criticizing African Imperialism.
Shuffle Along, 1921
Although Shuffle Along wasn’t the first musical by African-Americans, it did make a huge splash in 1921. The show succeeded when no one thought it would, accumulating heavy debt and starring a creative team and cast who had never created anything for Broadway before. It was the first Broadway show to integrate audiences in the orchestra seating area. It also was the first musical to include heavy jazz influence and set the stage for a new formula of African-American musicals of the 1920s. The 2016 production of Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed told the story of mounting the original production and starred Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter.
Garland Anderson was the first African-American known to have a full-length drama produced on Broadway. Anderson had no playwriting experience or theatrical stage training of any kind. A self-educated man, he wrote about his experiences as a hotel bellhop and infused his show Appearances with his beliefs of working hard for the classic American dream.
Juanita Hall was the first African-American to win a Tony Award. She won Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her role in South Pacific as Bloody Mary. It is said that Rogers and Hammerstein hand-picked her for the role after seeing her perform.
Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun opened in March 1959 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, solidifying her place in history as the first African-American woman to have a play on Broadway. The show won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for its rich story of a working-class African-American family living in Chicago. Hansberry wrote about segregation in Chicago after her family’s court case traveled to the Supreme Court when it challenged a restrictive covenant law that banned African-Americans from buying or renting property in a Chicago neighborhood.
Lloyd Richards was a Canadian-American who directed the plays of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson on Broadway. He became the first African-American to direct a play on Broadway in 1959 when he directed Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. His partnership with writer August Wilson was legendary, and he directed six of his works: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars.
Diahann Carroll was the first African-American actress to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Carroll made her Broadway debut in House of Flowers in 1954. After seeing her, composer Richard Rodgers cast her in his Broadway musical No Strings for which she won the Tony award in 1962.
James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones is a Tony Award and Golden Globe-winning actor who is one of the most iconic figures in American entertainment. He made his Broadway debut in 1958 in the play Sunrise at Campobello. In 1968 he starred as boxer Jack Jefferson in the Broadway drama The Great White Hope which brought him his first Tony Award. Jones won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play again in 1987 for his performance in August Wilson’s Fences.
The 1975 Broadway production of The Wiz won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and was the first mainstream culture African-American musical. The Wiz celebrates community, subculture and black pride, and it was a huge step forward for black representation in musical theater. The show was later remade into a film in 1978 starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson and was revamped into a live network television musical in 2015.
In 1975, Holder won two Tony Awards for Best Director and Costume Design of The Wiz, and was the first black man to win in either category. He also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Costume Design for his work on The Wiz. Holder was a multi-talented man, touching the arts through Broadway performance, costume design, and direction and professional dance and painting.
Audra McDonald is the first person to ever earn six Tony Award wins for acting (not counting honorary awards) and the first person to win a Tony Award in all four of the acting categories. The only other actress with this amount of Tony Awards is Julie Harris. Trained in classical voice from Juilliard, McDonald also holds two Grammy Awards and an Emmy Award.
In 2014, acclaimed actor Norm Lewis made history by taking on the title role of the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, becoming the first African-American to do so in New York and the third worldwide. He is best known for his work in Phantom and the 2011 production of Porgy and Bess when he played opposite of Audra McDonald.
Keke Palmer is an actress and singer who made history in 2014 as the first African-American Cinderella on Broadway. Although the singer Brandy played Cinderella in film, it took from 1997 to 2014 to break the Broadway barrier.
Taye Diggs is an American actor known for his roles in Rent on Broadway and film, the 2002 film version of Chicago, and many assorted roles in television. In 2015 he made history as the first African-American man to play Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway.