On Monday, September 12, James Earl Jones received an honor that very few Black actors ever have: the Cort Theatre, located at 138 W. 48th Street, which has undergone a $47 million renovation and expansion, is now renamed the James Earl Jones Theatre. Jones is a household name for his distinctive voice and performances in both theater and film. His career began in 1957, and over 60 years later he has been in 21 Broadway shows.
This honor is being bestowed on Jones by the Shubert Organization. “To witness a theater named in my honor is at once momentous and humbling,” said Jones. “It serves as a joyful reminder of the many long days and nights spent treading the boards with amazing peers who were at my side as we worked to show the humanity of all, often at great odds. It is my wish that it also serves as a beacon of hope to the countless contemporary talent now forging new paths in theater and beyond that all is possible.”
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Robert E. Wankel, chairperson and CEO of The Shubert Organization.
When asked, why James Earl Jones? Wankel replied, “Why not James Earl Jones? He’s one of the greatest American actors and he’s actually done 14 shows in Shubert Theatres. He’s been one of our great stars. It’s very fitting to have a theater named after a gentleman of his stature.”
The Shubert Organization was inspired to do this after the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. Considering how the renaming is a step in the Broadway community’s showing that it is about inclusion, Wankel explained, “I think the renaming in itself should make that statement. We don’t traditionally change names of our Broadway theaters, even though we’re asked to do it a great many times, but we made that decision after Blacks Lives Matter started and we decided we should name the theater after a BIPOC person. We made that decision in 2020 and we’re following through now with the completion of the construction, formerly the Cort Theatre and now the James Earl Jones Theatre, and I have to tell you it’s spectacular! The theater will reopen in October. Theater is life changing and we want every young person to come to the theater. We tell stories better than anybody. Millions of people experience the theater.”
When it comes to a spectacular career, not many people can compare to James Earl Jones, who has always represented his community with dignity and honor and has received many accolades, including the National Medal of the Arts, Kennedy Center Honors and a 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also an EGOT—Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner.
Recalling Jones’ reaction to hearing that the theater would be named in his honor Wankel said, “I think, as James said, having played the Cort Theatre and then having the theater named after him 60 years later, shows that if you work hard you can get places. And I think that James has certainly proven that. He’s had such an extraordinary career, very extraordinary. Hopefully the identity makes a statement that all people are important. And certainly, James Earl Jones, his contribution to the entertainment world is significant. Very few people have reached the status of EGOT.”
Naming the theater after Jones is essentially giving him immortality. Sharing what he wants the productions that play there to experience, Wankel explained, “I hope they will enjoy the new environment the theater will have, but most importantly they will be proud to play in the theater named after James Earl Jones, one of the great American actors.” The first show that will open the theatre is “Ohio State Murders” starring Audra McDonald with direction by Kenny Leon.
Recalling Jones’ reaction to this honor Wankel shared, “Mr. Jones was absolutely delighted. It’s a very significant honor, there are very few Broadway people who have theaters named after them. Many were named after lots of different things. I think it’s a very significant honor and one that he is very appreciative of.”
The theater underwent a $47 million restoration and expansion, it was originally designed in the style of an eighteenth century French palace by theater architect Thomas Lamb to house productions by theater impresario John Cort. Now it has been renovated by Kostow Greenwood Architects and has a refurbished interior and exterior, a modern annex, lounges, new restrooms, rehearsal spaces and offices for staff, a dressing room tower in the annex, expanding stage and upgrading the rigging system to accommodate more technically demanding productions. While that is a mouthful, Wankel said it was necessary. “The theater is 110 years old. The world has changed, the people have changed. The theater needed upgraded restrooms, we have an elevator so that all of the levels will be serviced for people with disabilities, the rigging system modernized because today’s technology is very different. But the theater just needs room, they were built tight back in the day and the world has changed. In order for the theater to be open another 100 years we had to make big renovations. We restored the original Cort Theater to its original beauty and people will appreciate that. There’s a 5-story annex, with the public space with restrooms and dressing rooms. This will keep the theater going for [another] 100 years. We had the opportunity to acquire a piece of property next to the theater that gave us the ability to have this annex. We’re honored to be naming the theater after Mr. Jones and we’re glad we had the opportunity to restore the theater. When you see it you will see it really is quite magnificent!”