Stewart F. Lane wrote a phenomenal book called “Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way,” published by Square One Publishers. The book chronicles the history of Blacks in theater, and it is a marvelous, exciting, fascinating history. Lane goes through the decades and lets the reader know at the introduction to each chapter which performers will have the spotlight placed on them. In some cases, Lane has interviewed such actors as James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams.
A discussion of Lane’s book at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore on 86th Street was led by author Tom Santopietro and included a panel consisting of Lane, Tony Award winner Leslie Uggams and director Sheldon Epps. Lane revealed how much he learned while doing the research for the book.
During the discussion of a chapter in which Lane wrote about Black playwrights such as Ossie Davis for “Purlie Victorious” and Lorraine Hansberry for “A Raisin in the Sun,” he was asked about August Wilson. Lane remarked, “He was the greatest American playwright. He wrote 10 plays and had to have tenacity to do that.”
Santopietro asked Uggams about being in “King Hedley II.” He asked how she was able to learn the lines. Uggams recalled, “I remember I was trying to learn the lines and a fellow actor looked at me and said ‘You’re musical, this is music. It’s like great jazz.’”
Epps, who directed “Fences” and worked with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, shared, “I was blessed with this company. It was a great experience.” Uggams mentioned how people began to notice her after she won the Tony for “Hallelujah Baby.”
Santopietro brought up color-blind casting, which is talked about in the book, and discussed how shocked he was by Wilson’s view of it. “August Wilson denounced color-blind casting as denying Black people their identity,” Santopietro stated.
Uggams voiced her support for color-blind casting, saying that she starred in “Gypsy.” “It was an international cast and it worked,” said Uggams, who has also played Mame. However, Uggams explained the reason for Wilson’s objection. “He wanted us to tell our stories.”
Epps shared his beliefs on this subject. “I believe that the talent of an actor transforms a role. Leslie Uggams as ‘Gypsy,’ and take James Earl Jones in ‘The Best Man’ on Broadway, where he played a Black president of the United States in 1962. When you saw him on stage, you didn’t see a Black man, you saw James Earl Jones’ talent and immediately bought into it.”
The extensive Black history in theater covered in this book is fascinating, and the youthful pictures of stars of old are captivating and inspiring.