This year has been, without question, the best year for actors, producers, directors and other theatrical professionals of color on Broadway. As we walk across the streets in the 40s between 6th and 9th avenues, bright theater marquees vividly and boldly announce the plays and portraits of actors, featured and otherwise, appearing inside.
We applaud the Tony nominating committee for recognizing the accomplishments of so many talented persons of color working on Broadway. Our hope is that next year the Academy Awards Oscar Nominating Committee will follow the Tony Awards example and support and initiate an equitable process for acknowledging and supporting diversity in the film industry.
As a longtime theater presenter (executive producer and founding member of New Heritage Theatre Group, the oldest continual not-for-profit Black theater organization in New York, founded in 1964), I am reminded of the pioneering contributions of actors, playwrights, directors, designers, technicians and producers who were trained in local theaters of color and laid the foundation for their participation on stages around the world.
As early as 1821, the African Grove Theater, cofounded by William Alexander Brown and James Hewlett in lower Manhattan, offered a theatrical home to present and showcase the works of Black actors and the pioneering efforts by Black actress Anita Bush, who established the Anita Bush Players (aka the Lafayette Players) in 1915. Her company performed in Harlem and provided the training and discipline for Black actors to showcase their skills. In 1940, a new theater company emerged in Harlem, the American Negro Theater, cofounded by playwright Abram Hill and actor Frederick O’Neal. Actors trained at the ANT included Harry Belafonte, Gertrude Jeannette, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and one of the ANT’s technicians, Roger Furman. ANT also presented Anna Lucasta on Broadway.
In 1964, I was fortunate to join Furman’s Harlem-based New Heritage Repertory Theatre, modeled on the ANT’s mission of training for actors of color. During the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, there was an enormous theatrical flowering of stellar productions by the Harlem theater community. Furman died in 1983, and I assumed leadership of his theater. In 1984, New Heritage produced its first South African play, “Woza Albert!,” written by Mbongeni Ngema. In 1986, we produced Ngema’s second play, “Asinamali!,” at our theater, and in 1987, ANT member Belafonte produced “Asinamali!” on Broadway, where Ngema received his first Tony nomination for Best Director of a Play. In 1988, New Heritage and Committed Artists South Africa were again represented on Broadway when Lincoln Center Theater produced Ngema’s Broadway musical, “Sarafina!.” “Sarafina!” was nominated for three Tony Awards for Best Choreography, Best Director of a Musical and Best Performance by a Featured Actress, and it was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Musical Cast Show Album, co-produced by Ngema, Hugh Masakela and me. Irene Gandy, now renowned as the only Black publicist on Broadway, was our theatrical press agent and associate producer.
This summer, in concert with Harlem Week, Harlem Music Fest, the Amsterdam News and our new, amazing initiative Harlem/Havana-Havana/Harlem, we will salute “Blacks on Broadway and Beyond,” at various public and invitational events in August. We invite you to attend as many of the events as you can. The 2016 Havana/Harlem events will all be promoted in the Amsterdam News. So make sure that you continue to support the Amsterdam News as well as supporting “Blacks on Broadway and Beyond” throughout the year.
Once again, congratulations to the 2016 Tony nominees. Job well done.