2021 was a year like no other in theater as the pandemic continued to shut down regular theater and had theater companies having to figure out a new normal to present productions. Creative people got more creative and found a different way. It was also a year of reflection on different levels.
Jan. 17, 2021 set a mark for a banner year for Woodie King Jr. and his New Federal Theatre as this theatrical treasure marked its 50th anniversary. The New Federal Theatre has been producing plays since 1970 and has presented over 450 mainstage productions. It does and has always served as a vehicle for people of color and women to have the opportunity to create and tell our stories!
With COVID raging, theaters had to find a safe way to create and present their works. In February, New Federal Theatre was there as it presented a virtual play reading series to quench the public’s appetite for theatrical fare. It presented “The Meeting” by Jeff Stetson, which told the story of a meeting between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a hotel room. It was powerfully performed by Beethovan Oden as Malcolm X and Joseph L. Edwards as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with Tyler Fauntleroy as Rashad. This engaging production utilized split screens to show the actors and was mesmerizing to watch. It also had phenomenal direction by Ajene Washington. Viewers were asked for a donation. The next reading in the series was of Mfundi Vundla’s “Widows” and it featured Zoleka Vundla, Phinki Wilson and Tanya Nomaziko Zondo with direction by Clinton Turner Davis.
COVID meant that theaters in general had to reinvent themselves. In February, Manhattan Theatre Club decided to do a virtual Curtain Call Series for free, which spotlighted plays from the past. Richard Wesley’s “The Past Is the Past” was a moving production that featured the riveting Ron Cephas Jones as Earl Davis and Jovan Adepo as Eddie Green. It told the tragic story of a father who meets his son that he abandoned years before. The play focused on the issue of Black men planting seeds in our communities, but not staying around to be fathers to their children. This production had stunning direction by Oz Scott.
February also saw the virtual premiere of “Freedom Summer,” a dramatic production written by Cynthia G. Robinson and brilliantly presented by North Carolina Black Repertory Company under director Jackie Alexander. While other virtual productions showed actors in isolated areas, this production gloriously was done in a theater with full set and costumes. That alone began to warm my heart. This play told the story of two Black sisters in 1964—the younger sister Carrie and older sister Nora. Nora is passing for white and about to marry a white man. The two actresses were spellbindingly captivating and were Nikyla Boxley as Carrie and Mariah Guillmette as Nora.
One of the most important aspects of telling our stories is capturing our theatrical history. While this was not presented on a stage, documentary filmmaker Juney Smith—the same man who previously documented Woodie King Jr. in “King of Stage: The Woodie King Jr. Story”—now turned his lens to documenting the journey of theater veterans such as actors Arthur French, Count Stovall and Marie Thomas, along with playwrights Richard Wesley and Dominique Morrisseau, Crossroads Theatre Company founder Ricardo Khan and Black lead Broadway producers—Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey in his film “King Arthur & The Count,” which came out at the end of March.
In April Audible gave audiences a theatrical experience to remember as it recorded and presented Liza Jessie Peterson in her phenomenal one-woman show about the criminal justice system and its mistreatment of Blacks and minorities—“The Peculiar Patriot.” The performance was recorded live at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theater in Manhattan in front of a live audience. This poignant work got its first breath of life at the National Black Theatre in 2018 and three years later it’s on Audible!
In May, Woodie King Jr. announced that after 50 years he would retire as producing director of New Federal Theatre. June 30th would be his last day. Then this precious jewel would be in the hands of the marvelous Elizabeth Van Dyke! King has a legacy to be honored, admired and cherished!
In June, the Broadway League’s Multi-Cultural Task Force, headed by Aaliytha Stevens and Brian Moreland, did an inaugural outdoor Juneteenth Celebration on Broadway between 43rd and 44th Street. Everyone who attended had proof of vaccination and wore masks. This event spotlighted the great talent of Black actors who are in numerous Broadway shows including “The Lion King,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Girl from the North Country,” “Caroline, Or Change,” “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” “Moulin Rouge,” and Keenan Scott II performed from his play “Thoughts of a Colored Man.” Theater legend and Tony Award winner Ben Vereen addressed the crowd and Tony Award winner Lillias White was the host. The performers thrilled the audience with uplifting songs full of heart and passion, including “Someday We’ll All be Free,” “Blowing in the Wind,” “Feeling Good,” “Redemption Song,” “Freedom,” “Keep Your Hand on the Plow-Hold On,” “Fabulous Feet,” “Stay,” “This Land is My Home,” “Higher Ground,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” There was also some incredible dancing. The presentation was directed by Steve Broadnax III, also the director for “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” which was Broadway bound. The superb performers that day included Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Stanley Martin, Andre Jordan, Nick Rashad Burroughs, L. Steven Taylor, Solomon Dumas, Bongi Duma, LaVon Fisher-Wilson, Richard Riaz Yoder, Lawrence Alexander, Anastacia McCleskey, Jacqueline Arnold, Crystal Joy and Britton Smith and The Sting. Press agent of five decades—Irene Gandy—was honored.
One of the first productions I was able to experience back in a theater was “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.” This touching, interactive theatrical experience happened in July at BAM. It was presented by BAM and Playwrights Horizons in association with The Movement Theatre Company. It was a spiritual journey to healing for Black people who are upset about the murders of our people by racist whites and police and need an outlet for their feelings. We all took part in a healing ritual. The cast played multiple roles and included Alana Raquel Bowers, Rachel Christopher, Ugo Chukwu, Kalyne Coleman, Javon Q. Minter and Beau Thom. This piece, beautifully written by Aleshea Harris, had brilliant direction by Whitney White. The experience allowed everyone to speak the names of those murdered into the universe. To say their name and remember.
In August we were all ready for the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park to bring on the Shakespeare, but with Black actors and a flair! Audiences got to laugh their butts off as the Public Theatre presented “Merry Wives,” a whimsical comedy from Shakespeare, adapted by Jocelyn Bioh, directed by Saheem Ali and with an all-Black cast. Bioh brought Shakespeare’s work to the 21st century, set it in Harlem and among African families. The comedy tells the story of Falstaff, a man who decides he will charm two married women with rich husbands. He wants to be taken care of. Of course, it’s not that simple. The ensemble cast was ridiculously funny and included Jacob Ming-Trent, Susan Kelechi Watson, Pascale Armand, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Kyle Scatliffe, Joshua Echebiri Abena, MaYaa Boateng, Phillip James Brannon, Angela Grovey, David Ryan Smith, Julian Rozzell Jr., Brandon E. Burton, Branden Lindsay, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Jarvis D. Matthews and Jennifer Mogbock.