Amazing, powerful, extraordinary, brilliant and thought-provoking are just some of the adjectives that come to mind when I think about the year in Black theater during 2013.
The year opened with audiences getting a spectacular treat with the Signature Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” which began in 2012, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The phenomenal cast included Roslyn Ruff, Brandon J. Dirden, James A. Williams, Jason Dirden, Chuck Cooper, Alexis Holt and Mandi Masden.
2013 saw “Black Stars of the Great White Way: A Chapman Roberts Concept” take the stage at Queensborough Community College; Cicely Tyson on a Broadway stage in “The Trip to Bountiful,” which featured a Black cast for the first time ever; and “Mama, I Want to Sing” celebrate its 30th year. Audiences also got to see the Broadway production of “Romeo and Juliet” starring a Black Juliet, Condola Rashad, and her Black parents, performed by Cooper and Ruff.
It was also a year to see Billy Porter strut his stuff in some fabulous, red, over-the-knee boots in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway, and it was a chance to see Courtney B. Vance on the Broadway stage opposite Tom Hanks in “Lucky Guy.” By far, this has been one of the best years for Black theater in a long time.
Now, let’s get into details. The year started off with “Black Stars of the Great White Way: A Chapman Roberts Concept,” and it was marvelous to experience. On that stage you had some of the most talented men ever to be assembled. They included singers, actors and tap dancers from Broadway: Keith David, André De Shields, Omar Edwards, Ted Louis Levy, Norm Lewis, Larry Marshall, Frank Owens, Longineu Parsons, Keith Robinson and Ben Vereen. These men captivated, entertained and, dare I say, romanced the audience.
Next, we saw the 30th anniversary of “Mama, I Want to Sing,” the creation of Vy Higginsen and Ken Wydro. This is an enduring musical and should last another 30 years. It tells the story of Higginsen’s sister, a famous singer, and how her career got started. This production is presented by the Mama Foundation, and its home is the Dempsey Theater in Harlem.
Then Broadway got to learn something about music mogul Berry Gordy when a musical he created about his life came to the Great White Way. “Motown: The Musical” boasts several Motown hit songs. The only issue with the show is there is no real storyline, but if you just love Motown songs, you could get a kick out of it.
In that same month, veteran actor Vance took the stage and delivered a powerful, brilliant performance as Hap Hairston in “Lucky Guy” on Broadway. The performance was so amazing that it earned him the 2013 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role.
Speaking of the Tony Awards, there were three other African-Americans to win in 2013. Porter won for Best Performance by an Actor in a Lead Role in a Musical. He played Lola, a drag queen who finds a way to give a new lease on life to an old-fashioned shoe-making company, in “Kinky Boots.”
The Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role in a Play was beautifully earned by veteran actress Tyson for her Broadway debut as Carrie Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful.” She starred with Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Williams and Rashad. “The Trip to Bountiful” was a theatrical event that left one stunned. There was such passion and drama on the stage; it moved, captivated and inspired.
Finally, Patina Miller walked away with the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for her versatile, energized and tremendous performance as the Leading Player in “Pippin” at the Music Box Theatre. This was a role previously played by Vereen, and a role that Miller made her own. She was marvelous as she led this production of “Pippin,” which reinvents the work as a circus act. It is so engaging and funny to watch.
The Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn presented “The Obeah Symphony,” which was a very funny time. It was written by Kesi Foster and Jackie Alexander and starred B. Douglas Jones, Patrick J. Mitchell, Ito Aghayere and Marcelle Gover.
A new nightclub spot has opened in Manhattan called 54 Below, located at 254 W. 54th St., and it frequently features fantastic performances by Black actors. I had the pleasure of going to see LaChanze as she did an incredible tribute to Diana Ross in her one-woman show, “Love Hangover: LaChanze Sings Diana Ross.”
2013 also saw tap dancer extraordinaire Savion Glover back onstage at the Joyce Theater doing what he does in “Savion Glover’s STePz.” Glover performed a mesmerizing show with Ayodele Casel, Sarah Savelli, Marshall Davis Jr. and Robyn Watson.
The Manhattan Theatre Club presented “Choir Boy” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, a moving piece of theater that featured gospel singing and focused on homophobia. It starred Jeremy Pope, Grantham Coleman, Anthony Coleman, Wallace Smith, Kyle Beltran, Nicholas L. Ashe and Cooper. It was powerful to watch. The play looked at homophobia in a boys private school.
Jeannette Bayardelle displayed her versatility and talents in 2013 as she performed her one-woman show “Shida: A New Musical,” as part of the Ars Nova Summer Fling series. She told a poignant story of a girl who had been sexually abused.
“Buried Child,” a poignant, powerful and disturbing drama about a family riddled with problems, was presented by the City College of New York at Aaron Davis Hall on Convent Avenue and 135th Street. This play is the creation of playwright Sam Shepard and features an overbearing and annoying wife and mother, an ill husband and father and mentally unstable sons. The cast included Robert Boardman, Teresa Ann Volgenau, Eric Gravez, Tenice Divya Johnson, Leroy Smith Graham, Stephen Macau and Edwin Matos Jr.
This past year proved that something that is wonderful, can be enhanced and improved. That happened in the case of the play “Platanos & Collard Greens,” which was changed to “Platanos, Collard Greens Y Callaloo.” The play, written by David Lamb, now has a West Indian element added to it, and it is delightful. It is still playing at the Baruch Performing Arts Center and is a must-see! It still takes a humorous look at the relationship between Freeman, a Black youth, and Angelina, a Dominican girl, and how the stereotypes that exist in their cultures get in the way of their having a healthy relationship. The cast includes Edgar Moore Jr., Jocelyn Marie, Preston Taylor, Gordon Harry, Shakirah DeMesier, Gabriel Hamilton, Glenn Quinton and Pamela Rose Rodriguez.
On Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre, Amber Iman brought down the house as she played Nina Simone in “Soul Doctor.” The musical was absolutely incredible to watch, and Iman’s singing was amazing to hear.
Karen Aldridge made an enduring mark in her Broadway debut as Mrs. Phelps the librarian in “Matilda: The Musical,” playing at the Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street.
Daniel Hickman and Ava Jenkins starred in “Stealin’ Home” at the Castillo Theatre, a production about the life of Jackie Robinson that was directed by Charles Weldon. This play, written by Fred Newman, is a tribute to the first Black Major League Baseball player.
One of the events that I cherish chronicling in the Year in Review is the annual AUDELCO Awards, and 2013 was an exceptional year for the AUDELCO Awards, as they honor Black theater. This year, the production of “The Piano Lesson” received great kudos, winning eight VIV Awards, including Best Revival; Best Director/Dramatic Production—Santiago-Hudson; Best Lead Actress—Ruff; Best Lead Actor—Dirden; Best Supporting Actor—Cooper; Best Costume Design—Michael Camahan; and Best Lighting Design—Rui Rita.
You can always go to the AUDELCO website at www.audelco.net and see who 2013’s other VIV winners were. The AUDELCO organization is one that should be supported throughout the year, because its mission is to support and reward Black actors who give their all on the stage and behind the stage.
This year, make a commitment to support Black theater, whether it is Black-owned theater companies, theater companies that feature plays by Black playwrights and with Black casts or Black actors on Broadway. Our people are so versatile and talented, and we have so much to offer this world.