I am so excited as I sit down to write about the year in Black theater. By far, 2011 has been one of the most magnificent years that Black theater has known in a very long time.
This year celebrated the 40th anniversary of Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre. It was a year that saw movie stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett brought together for the first time on the Broadway stage in “The Mountaintop,” which is playing through Jan. 22.
This is the year that “Sister Act” came to Broadway; though the script and songs have changed, it is definitely a blessing and a joy to behold. Whoopi Goldberg is one of the producers.
2011 is the year that Broadway director Kenny Leon made his mark, not only by directing “The Mountaintop,” written by Black playwright Katori Hall, but also “Stick Fly,” written by Black playwright Lydia R. Diamond. It is fantastic to see two shows written by Black female playwrights on Broadway and featuring Black cast members.
2011 proved to be a year where Black theater was alive and well all around New York. In Brooklyn, the Billie Holiday Theatre kept audiences entertained and teaching lessons through its productions, “The Legend of Buster Neal” and “The Right Reverend Dupree in Exile.” In Lower Manhattan, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe dealt with the subject of date rape through “Georgia.” In Harlem, the Dwyer Cultural Center looked at the atrocities that befell the people of Haiti in “Haiti’s Children of God.”
Let me give you this marvelous year in Black theater in the order it happened.
In the beginning of the year, Andre Braugher and Andre Holland set the stage of the Manhattan Theatre Club on fire with their amazing performances as slaves in “The Whipping Man.” Lorey Hayes made the plight of the people of Haiti clear in her play “Haiti’s Children of God.” This moving play depicted the abuse that the Haitian people suffered at the hands of the military, hands that committed rape, murder and imprisoned people for having opposing political views.
In March, the Billie Holiday Theatre presented playwright/director Jackie Alexander’s poignant work, “The Legend of Buster Neal.” This play brought together four generations of Black males in a family and showed the need for the great-great-grandfather to come back to save the life of his grandson. The cast was riveting and featured Nathan Purdee, Stephen Hill, Patrick Mitchell, Dennis Johnson, Charles Anthony Burks and Sidiki Fofana.
The New Federal Theatre, which has produced 280 plays and has presented a full season every year, celebrated its 40th anniversary with a star-studded evening and much deserved kudos for its founder, Woodie King Jr.
Playwright Lynn Nottage had a new work performed at Second Stage Theater called, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” This play was hilarious and stunning and starred Sanaa Lathan, Stephanie J. Block, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Karen Olivo, David Garrison, Kevin Isola and Daniel Breaker. Nottage shared the difficulties that Black female actresses had to go through to get roles in the 1930s in Hollywood.
Kyra Da Costa, Erica Dorfler, Christina Sajous and Erica Ash took to the stage at the Broadhurst Theater, along with Allan Louis and Geno Henderson. The ladies performed as the Shirelles and did a great job bringing their songs like “He’s So Fine,” “Soldier Boy” and “Mama Said” to life in “Baby It’s You.”
A minister with a medical death sentence had his faith tested in playwright/director Jackie Alexander’s powerful production, “The Right Reverend Dupree in Exile” at the Billie Holiday Theatre. The play had an incredible cast that included Ralph McCain, Marcelle Gover, Brandon Jones, Rege C. Lewis and Eboni Witcher.
While much was happening for African-Americans in theater, you wouldn’t have known it at the Tony Awards, where only one African-American won. Nikki M. James came away with Best Featured Role in a Musical for “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway. Broadway also saw the debut performance of Patina Miller, who plays Deloris Van Cartier in “Sister Act.” She is joined by the one and only Chester Gregory, Kingsley Leggs and Demond Green. This production is playing at the Broadway Theater and is a heavenly habit to partake in.
2011 saw Vy Higginsen remount her gospel musical, “Mama I Want To Sing: The Next Generation” and it was phenomenal. The beloved storyline, which tells of her sister Doris Troy’s singing career, featured magnificent voices with rich life lessons and took the audience to church. The production starred Higginsen’s daughter, Ahmaya Knoelle Higginsen, along with a cast of great singers that included Tyrone Flowers, Sandra Huff, Elijah Ahmad Lewis and Bettina Pennon. It also featured the Gospel for Teens Choir, another of Higginsen’s projects through her Mama Foundation.
Nilaja Sun wrote and performed her one-woman show, “No Child,” which exposed the horrible things occurring to young people in the New York City school system, where many minority youth are written off and prepared for incarceration. Sun performed the play at the Barrow Street Theatre. A new playwright, Fariso Jordan, decided to boldly tackle the topic of rape in relationships with her one-woman show “Georgia” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Uptown, the New Haarlem Arts Theater, part of the theater program at City College of New York, presented a stunning production of “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues.” In addition to stunning performances by several cast members, the show paired seasoned actors with acting students. The combination was glorious.
2011 revealed the tragic life of singer Bessie Smith in a production entitled, “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith.” The show starred Michel Braden and was written by Angelo Parra. Presented at the St. Luke’s Theatre, it showed how Smith was an alcoholic drug user who was sexually free. It was quite an eye-opener about the life of the blues singer.