The year 2015 was one of the most magnificent years that Blacks in theatre have experienced for some time. There were so many great moments, it excites me to recount them. Blacks made their marks on Broadway, off-Broadway and in local Black theatre companies.
The year started off with everyone seeing the energy, strength and passion of South Africans, as we cheered at Symphony Space for “Africa Umoja: 20 Years of Freedom and Democracy.” Thirty-two South African dancers, singers, actors and drummers performed for an audience that felt the drum beat in their hearts. We were all inspired as a narrator described the struggles and challenges that South Africans have endured through the years. They are a strong, spirited and passionate people, and those emotions clearly came through in the dazzling, heart-pounding choreography. The production was presented by the International Arts Foundation.
Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre dedicated its 46th season to the works of Amiri Baraka and presented a stunning production of “Dutchman” at the Castillo Theatre, which King directed. The production featured captivating performances by Michael Alcide and Ryan Jillian Kilpatrick. The casting of Kilpatrick was bold. This light-skinned Black actress wore a mask and played a role written for a white actress.
Broadway saw the return to the stage of theatre legend James Earl Jones, starring in “You Can’t Take It With You” at the Longacre Theatre. Non-traditional casting was at its height here as Jones played the role of patriarch of the zany Vanderhof family. Jones was pure brilliance in this original and hilarious comedy. Other Blacks in the cast included Crystal A. Dickinson and Marc Damon Johnson.
The Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn presented “Brothers From the Bottom,” written and directed by Jackie Alexander. This riveting play showed the gentrification that happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The play showcased an amazing cast that included Wendell Pierce, Jocarra Cash, Kevin Mambo, Wendell Franklin, Megan Robinson and Thaddeus Daniels.
Anytime that Daniel Beaty sets foot on a stage, you know it is a good year. In 2015, a delightful, creative, original triple threat on stage—as the writer, actor and singer—in his one-man show, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” he performed a tribute to Paul Robeson. He presented it at BAM’s Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn. He gave the audience a detailed, loving and respectful story of Robeson’s life. He was engaging, moving and brilliant!
The year 2015 proved to be a year when Broadway decided to be brave in its subject matter and handle unusual and uncomfortable topics. This boldness was demonstrated when “Airline Highway” played at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, the play by Lisa D’Amour focused on the lives of a dying former burlesque performer and her friends, who lived in a rundown motel. Knowing that the burlesque star was dying, her friends decided to have her wake while she was alive. Her friends were strippers—men and women—transvestite bartenders, prostitutes and other people society looks down on. This play made the audience see that everyone deserves respect, no matter what they do for a living, and that we are all human and have feelings. One of the main roles in the play was brilliantly and passionately performed by K. Todd Freeman. This African-American male played Sissy NaNa, the transvestite bartender, but he was also the major caregiver to the burlesque star. Freeman won a Drama Desk Award for his role.
As I said, non-traditional casting was abundant in 2015. After “Dutchman ” and “You Can’t Take It With You,” Masterworks Theater Company staged a revival of Tennessee Williams’ classic play, “The Glass Menagerie,” at the 47th Street Theatre. The members of the Wingfield family were ethnically mixed. Amanda Wingfield, the mother character, was played by Hispanic actress Saundra Santiago. Her children Tom and Laura were played by African-American actors Richard Prioleau and, making her stage debut, Olivia Washington. Prioleau gave an astounding performance and Washington definitely made Denzel and Pauletta proud as she portrayed Laura. She gave the character marvelous dimensions and made the audience see a whole person—shy, handicapped, lonely and awkward, but also talented, gentle and sensitive.
A marvelous musical called “A Band of Angels,” let audiences know about the history of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. The musical presented by the New York City Children’s Theater was beautifully directed by Colman Domingo and featured an incredible cast that included Cynthia Nesbit, Denielle Marie Gray, Bryson Bruce, La’Nette Wallace, Sekou S. Luke and Sam Ray. The cast performed exquisite renditions of old-time gospel songs such as “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” “This Little Light of Mine” and “All God’s Children Got Shoes.”
In a year when Black males were losing their lives because of racism, it was the appropriate time to do “Emmett, Down in My Heart.” This dramatic production, written by Clare Coss, directed by Erica Gould and presented at the Castillo Theatre, reminded audiences that racism has been around a long time and is brutal and harsh. Coss gave audiences a clear look at the Emmett Till murder that occurred in Mississippi in 1955. The audience got to know the characters of Till, his mother Mamie, his Uncle Mose, his Aunt Lizzy and his Cuz. We also got to realize how strong a person Mamie was, as she insisted on an open casket at Till’s funeral, so the world could see how her son had been tortured and killed by a racist white business owner. The cast was marvelous and consisted of African-American members James Ross, Jasmine Saunise, Cassaguol Leonidas Jr., Tiffany Raelynn and Lorenzo Jackson.
Montego Glover had a featured role in the funny Broadway musical, “It Shoulda Been You” that played at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. She was very amusing as a bisexual friend of a bride to be.
Michael James Scott is featured in the original, very funny musical comedy, “Something Rotten” playing at the St. James Theatre on W 44th Street, also on Broadway. This musical comedy is superb! It’s focused on William Shakespeare—I’ll say no more.
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Continuing its season dedicated to Amiri Baraka, Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre staged “Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B. DuBois).” The play was performed at the Castillo Theatre and looked closely at the accomplishments, struggles and persecution that occurred in DuBois’ life. The cast gave solid performances and included Art McFarland, Petronia Paley, Keldrick Crowder, Sidiki Fofana, Marie Louise Guinier, Alonzo Jones, Te’La Curtis Lee, Joyce Sylvester, Akil N. Williams, Landon G. Woodson, Zuhairah, Lamar K. Cheston, Michael Basile, Arthur Bartow, Ralph McCain, Nick Plakias, Stu Richel and Robert G. Siverls.
Tony award winner Chuck Cooper was back on Broadway starring in the musical “Amazing Grace” that played at the Nederlander Theatre. The musical told the moving story of John Newton, the white slave trader who wrote the gospel song “Amazing Grace.” Cooper was stirring as Thomas, Newton’s slave. The musical bluntly showed the horrors of slavery and had other Black performers in major and ensemble roles. Other featured actors included Laiona Michelle and Harriett D. Foy, who gave powerful performances. Additional Black cast members were Rheaume Crenshaw, Mike Evariste, Oneika Phillips, Vyoata Udi, Charles E. Wallace, Toni Elizabeth White and Hollie E. Wright. All the performances were touching.
If you are looking for a history lesson delivered through rap and hip-hop, you can still see “Hamilton” on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. This musical production has book, music and lyrics by and stars Lin-Manuel Miranda. He tells the story of Alexander Hamilton. The cast is superb and features many Black performers, including Renee Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan. “Hamilton” makes learning history catchy and fun. It’s a marvelous means to showcase the multiple talents of the cast, which also includes Phillipa Soo and Jonathan Groff.
In 2015 Black theater was alive and well, whether it was the focus of the Black Theatre Network’s annual conference held in Winston Salem, N.C. or it was the focus at the National Black Theatre Festival in the same location. The Black Theatre Network had discussions about the state of Black theatre. There were readings of original scripts and numerous theatre-connected workshops. This year I was honored to participate in the conference. I was asked to conduct a theatre-critic workshop. It was a joy to do, and being around people who love and enjoy plays as much as I do was heavenly. And of course, the National Black Theatre Festival was a mecca for Black theatre lovers. It had multiple productions from other states and international companies. There were also play readings, theatre workshops and an award ceremony to honor those in Black theatre. Grace Jones, president of AUDELCO was honored for all her work with this phenomenal organization that acknowledges excellence in Black theatre. Attending these events was a huge highlight in my year.
Broadway struck gold twice. James Earl Jones is back and thriving again. But he’s not alone. He’s joined by Tony award winner Cicely Tyson as they star in D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game,” playing at Broadway’s Golden Theatre. The production shares the mediocrity and sadness that the elderly endure. Jones and Tyson deliver these characters as feisty and funny and play off each other so easily. This play is one you should make plans to see in 2016.
A daring production was the offering at The Public Theatre of “Eclipsed,” by African-American playwright Danai Gurira. The captivating, disturbing drama focused on what girls and women in Liberia experienced during wartime. The experience of belonging to a commanding officer as his property, to have sex with whenever it struck him to do so. The females were kept and abused. “Eclipsed” packed a power, pain and passion that was not easy to accept, but the storyline was real and poignant.
The wonderful cast included Lupita Nyong’o, Saycon Sengbloh, Pascale Armand, Zainab Jah and Akosua Busia. The great word is there are plans to move the play to Broadway with the same cast. The Broadway opening is expected to be Feb. 23, at the John Golden Theatre on West 45th Street
The Black Spectrum Theatre in Queens presented a deep play that made one wonder if there is such a thing as reincarnation. The play, written by Carl Clay, the theatre founder and executive producer, is called “Timeless, The Mystery of the Dark Water.” The production was well written and beautifully acted by a talented ensemble. The cast included Reginald L. Barnes, Lisa Roxanne Walters, Pharoah King Champion, Sean C. Turner, Douglas Wade, David French and Edythe Jason. The play was directed by Bette Howard.
In 2015, the 43rd Annual AUDELCO Awards recognized the excellence and creativity of those in Black theatre. It was a pure night of excitement, pride and love. It was also special for me because I received a Lifetime Achievement Award for being a theatre critic for 30 years. It was the most touching moment of my life. It was so amazing to be acknowledged for doing this thing that I love!
The end of 2015 had an anticipated musical revival that I was waiting for, “The Color Purple,” and I am thrilled to say it’s back on Broadway. This musical, with book by Marsha Norman and Brenda Russell and music and lyrics by Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, is fantastic and playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on West 45th Street. The cast is heavenly and features Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks—all making their Broadway debuts. Additional superb cast members include Isaiah Johnson, Joaquina Kalukango, Kevyn Morrow, Kyle Scatliffe, Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson, Rema Webb, Patrice Covington, Carla R. Stewart, Grasan Kingsberry, Akron Watson and Dwayne Clark.
Besides watching a tremendous production, the other thing I love about this musical being on Broadway is it’s a vehicle for many Black actors to have their gifts displayed. This musical is moving, captivating and thrilling. Make sure you go see it in 2016.
Maurice Hines is an entertainer in the true meaning of the word and has a new show that started at the end of 2015 called “Tappin’ Thru Life.” This production is performed at New World Stages on West 50th Street, and it is a tribute to the careers of Hines and his late brother Gregory and to the lives of their parents. It is a touching production to experience. Hines, at age 72, is still tapping as well as ever, and he sings songs to go along with the story he shares. He is joined on stage by the amazing tap-dance brothers, John and Leo Manzari, along with Dario Natarelli, a teenage tapper. This production is uplifting and truly is a show that will have you feeling as if Hines is speaking directly to you and sharing his pride in his family and the life he has known.
In 2016 Blacks are presently on Broadway in “The Color Purple,” “The Gin Game,” “Hamilton,” and “Something Rotten,” and they are marvelous and inspiring! And remember “Eclipsed” is on its way in February 2016. Make sure you make plans to support our people and especially check out what the Black theatre companies are doing—New Federal Theatre, Classical Theatre of Harlem, The Billie Holiday Theatre, National Black Theatre, Black Spectrum Theatre and so many more. Support Black in theatre in 2016 wherever you can find it. Make that your New Year’s resolution!