2014 was a phenomenal year for Black theater. Audra McDonald made history as the first person to ever win a sixth Tony Award, which she earned for her performance as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” playing at Circle in the Square at West 50th Street. In fact, speaking of the Tony Awards, James Monroe Iglehart distinguished himself this year as he walked away with the Tony for Featured Actor in a Musical for his amazing, energetic performance of the Genie in Disney’s “Aladdin,” which is still being enjoyed on Broadway.
The Broadway community this year also embraced Black theater, as “A Raisin in the Sun,” the classic Lorraine Hansberry play, was brought to the stage, directed by Kenny Leon. The production received Tony Awards for Best Revival, Best Director (Leon’s first) and Best Performance by an Actress for Sophie Okonedo, also a first. Bravo!
Before receiving their Tony Awards, McDonald and Iglehart had their superb talent acknowledged at the Drama Desk Awards this year, winning that distinguished honor as well. John Douglas Thompson, who played Louis Armstrong in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” was also presented with a Drama Desk Award in the category of best Solo Performance.
This was a year when Black theater saw and heard, for the first time, the creative voice of Billy Porter, the Tony Award-winning star of “Kinky Boots,” as he brought his personal story to the stage with “While I Yet Live.” It was Porter’s first writing endeavor, and it was a rousing success! The production, which told Porter’s story of how it was to grow up a Black, Christian, gay man, was a story that touched the heart and told an incredible story about abuse, betrayal, family secrets, forgiveness and the healing process. The story’s first attractive quality was its honesty. The next facet that immediately gripped the audience was the exceptional cast, which included S. Epatha Merkerson, Lillias White, Sheria Irving, Elain Graham, Sharon Washington, Kevyn Morrow and Larry Powell. They were driven to deliver stunning performances by the outstanding direction of Sheryl Kaller.
The year started off with the Harlem Repertory Theater performing a delightful production of “Finian’s Rainbow.” This performance was double billed with “Flahooley.” The company chose to bring back two classic plays but have them performed by a racially diverse cast. It was marvelous to experience.
When “Aladdin” opened on Broadway, my daughter and I were excited to see it, but we had no idea of the fantastic performance that was waiting for us when Iglehart took the stage as the Genie. When he performed “Friend Like Me,” he stunned everyone in the theater, and he continues to do so. “Aladdin” is the perfect family musical, and it also features Clifton Davis as the Sultan.
Although I talked about her making history, there are not enough adjectives to describe the portrayal of Billie Holiday that McDonald delivers in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” McDonald seems to have Holiday’s spirit come through her as she portrays a woman who is drinking, drunk, sad and still performing. She portrays a woman who has been forgotten by society and whose heyday has come and gone. You see such a tender humanity and venerability in her. The show will have one connecting to the tragedy of Holiday’s life and caring about what her end was like—the end of her career, fame and life. It is amazing when a production can do that.
“After Midnight,” a marvelous musical that honored the art form of tap dancing and provided the audience with stunning singing performances of various classic songs from Harlem in the 1930s, brought Patti LaBelle into a featured spotlight. And you know what LaBelle did—she made that spot her own. She “Pattified” it, and the audience loved every minute. She complimented the outstanding performance of Dule Hill.
2014 should also go in the record books for the “Black Stars of the Great White Way Broadway Reunion and Award Concert,” which celebrated 100 years of Black men contributing to Carnegie Hall and Broadway. The concert was a magnificent evening created by Norm Lewis, Broadway star and the first Black phantom in “Phantom of the Opera,” and Broadway producer Chapman Roberts. It was an evening of singing, tap dancing and performances that almost took the roof off as Chuck Cooper sang a tribute to Duke Ellington and Andre De Shields recreated his role as the Wizard in “The Wiz,” which celebrated the production’s 40th anniversary. De Shields still fit into his original costume, and it was something to behold. And of course, Andre was Andre, his voice superb. This evening truly put a spotlight on the contributions of Black men to Broadway, especially when the original members of “Dreamgirls,” featuring Obba Babatunde, danced and sang “Step Into the Bad Side.”
“The 411” was a powerful play briefly performed during the summer. The play was based on a book of the same name by Howard Robertson, a retired Rikers Island warden. The play truly lets young people see why you need to live your life right and choose your friends wisely. It speaks to them in real language about getting involved with the wrong type of life and what can happen. Hopefully it will be remounted this year. If you hear about it, make plans to see it and take teenagers with you.
“Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical” was written, starred in and co-directed by Anthony Wayne. It looked at the life of Sylvester, the legendary performer of the disco era. Sylvester was flamboyantly gay and on a mission of self-discovery. The musical included exciting performances of Sylvester’s greatest hits such as “Do You Wanna Funk” and “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real.”
New Federal Theater presented “Accept ‘Except’” at the Castillo Theater. It was a moving, thought-provoking production by Karimah, directed by George Faison. The play showed the hatred and mistreatment that homosexuals and lesbians receive in our society, and how it’s a problem that has been around since slavery times. The play puts the issues in the audience’s face and shows how the person being persecuted feels. The production encourages tolerance and acceptance. It is a very important production, and it is created and catered to whatever state it is produced in. If you hear about this show being performed, make sure you experience it.
Disney’s “Cinderella” on Broadway enjoyed, and currently enjoys, African-American females in the lead roles, Kiki Palmer as Cinderella and Sherri Shepherd as Madame, the wicked stepmother. The story is truly enchanted. “Brownsville Song (B-side for Tray)” played at Lincoln Center. It was a captivating and moving production. The cast was superb! The Public Theater presented Suzan Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3).” It was a poignant, stunning play to experience.
The year ended with “The Resurrection of Alice” at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn. This play was written by and starred Perri Gaffney and had splendid direction by Jackie Alexander. Set in the late 1930s in South Carolina, it was a riveting tale about a young girl who is sacrificed for her family’s happiness. You have to experience it to understand what I mean. Meanwhile, Phil Darius Wallace wrote and performed a respectful, endearing piece about Frederick Douglass, called “Self Made Man: The Frederick Douglass Story,” at the ArcLight Theater. Wallace was a tour de force as he portrayed many of the people who played a part in the famous slave and abolitionist’s life. His acting was first rate.
Whether we are on Broadway or off-Broadway, our talent and stories shine. Please make it a plan to support Black theater this year. No one tells our stories like we do!