In July 2022, the theatre world, which awards outstanding stage debuts on and off Broadway, gave half of its 12 awards to African Americans! Kearstin Piper Brown won for her debut in Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” at Lincoln Center—this young lady demonstrated that Black opera singers are the bomb. After bringing the house down at every performance of “Caroline, or Change,” Sharon D. Clarke won for her debut as Caroline on Broadway. One of my favorite young actresses, Kara Young, made her Broadway debut in “Clyde’s” by Lynn Nottage and she received this well-deserved acknowledgment. Justin Cooley won for his debut in the Off-Broadway production of “Kimberly Akimbo,” which is actually currently on Broadway through March 26, 2023. Jaquel Spivey won for his Broadway debut as Usher in “A Strange Loop.” Myles Frost also came away with the coveted award for his debut in “MJ: The Musical.”
The revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” still playing at the St. James Theatre on W. 44th Street through Jan. 8, 2023, made August awesome and featured several Blacks in prominent roles. Patina Miller was amazing as the Witch; Joshua Henry was enchanting as Rapunzel’s Prince; Cole Thompson as Jack; and Ta’nika Gibson as Lucinda, Cinderella’s wicked stepsister. By the way, Joaquina Kalukango is now playing the role of the Witch and the other Black actors mentioned are still in their roles. This musical tells the tales of Cinderella, the Baker and His Wife, Jack & the Beanstalk, and Little Red Ridinghood, but takes the tales much further than we learned them as children.
September 12, 2022, marked when the Cort Theatre on W. 48th Street, after a $47 million renovation and the addition of a five-story building annex to give added public space, was renamed after the great theater legend James Earl Jones.
In October 2022, I felt privileged to be in the room where it happened. I have never been so moved in the theater! I tell you all, I saw history being made as “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller was mounted with its first Black cast in starring roles in the history of Broadway. “Death of a Salesman,” done from a Black family perspective, took Broadway brilliance to an astronomical level at the Hudson Theatre. The classic play about salesman Willy Loman and his family—wife Linda and adult sons Biff and Happy—watching his emotional and mental deterioration, profoundly demonstrated the feeling of failure that a Black man can feel when his dreams for himself and his children don’t come true. British director Miranda Cromwell let the audience know, from the very first moments, that this play had a Black focus. Opening with gospel music strains, the play used this music throughout to soothe Willy and to dramatize moments, and then bring things full circle with more gospel toward the end for a sense of continuity. The cast is the best on Broadway, bar none. Wendell Pierce delivers Willy Loman with every fiber of his being. He takes us on an emotionally crazed journey of a man on the verge of desperation, through tremendous highs and lows. Sharon D. Clarke as Linda Loman is a powerhouse and a tour de force. She takes the audience on a rollercoaster ride that will have you gripped with emotion. Khris Davis is stunning as Biff. McKinley Belcher III is riveting as Happy, the younger son who lives in the shadow of Biff. The play is running through Jan. 15, 2023 only.
October also marked the return to Broadway of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” with an all-star cast. Playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on W. 47th Street, this is a chance to see the work of a genius, but only through Jan. 29, 2023. There is a great deal of humor, moments of bringing up the past and moments of recognizing the presence of spirits. “The Piano Lesson” tells the story of Boy Willie who has come to Pittsburgh to try to get and sell his late father’s piano, which has been in the family for generations. The piano has the personal history of this family on it, going as far back as their grandparents who were enslaved. The piano is something that belongs to him and his sister Berniece. He looks at it as a means to a new beginning for his life, but Berniece sees it for the importance it played in the lives and deaths of their family members. The rich history of this piano is beautifully and grippingly shared by characters throughout the play from Berniece to Doaker, the uncle who Berniece and her daughter Maretha live with, and Wining Boy, his brother. This production is the quintessential example of August Wilson’s work being presented with a great deal of flair, humor, respect and distinction. The cast is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. John David Washington brings a fire, relentlessness and a demand for respect to his character that makes you see the multi-layers that Boy Willie has. Danielle Brooks as Berniece is stupendous. She is the keeper of the pain, the love, the flame and the legacy that is held in every piece of wood and carving in this family heirloom. Samuel L. Jackson as Doaker has such a naturally smooth presence on stage. He is the wise elder in the family who keeps the peace, but also has a firm hand on what happens in his home. Michael Potts as Wining Boy is very funny. His character provides that musical element that fits so very well with this play. There is both a shallowness and a depth to Wining Boy. Berniece has an up-and-coming preacher named Avery who is interested in her; that role was played by the understudy Charles Browning at the performance I attended, and he was tremendous. When he began to talk of God, he could have led a revival. He was absolutely wonderful, while also demonstrating that he was a man with needs. Nadia Daniel was delightful as Maretha, a role she shares with Jurnee Swan. Ray Fisher as Lymon is making his Broadway debut and is destined to become a household name. April Matthis is quite funny as Grace, a girl Boy Willie brings home to romance, but who ends up with Lymon. He is funny and endearing, and has a stage presence that reaches over the footlights and eases into your heart. This play comes together with such joy, splendor, respect and care, and that is due to the sterling direction of Latanya Richardson Jackson. Jackson took Wilson’s words and these actors, and handles every moment with great care. There is a feeling of the Black family experience from that stage that pulls you in, body and mind.
Black female playwrights were in abundance on Broadway as Suzan Lori-Parks joined the ranks as the fifth one when her production of “Topdog/Underdog” was revived on Broadway during its 20th anniversary. It was done under the awesome, powerful direction of Kenny Leon in October. In fact, the play is still playing at the John Golden Theatre on W. 45th Street through Jan. 15, 2023. Lori-Parks tells the story of two Black brothers, Lincoln and Booth, for whom life dealt terrible cards. They have not known love, security or support in their home lives, but instead experienced abandonment by both their parents, betrayal, chaos. They have known fear, hunger, desperation. Through it all, they have always had each other, but also carried a great deal of anger and envy. They have always needed to feel loved and important and that has not worked out well for either. What happens to Black boys who grow up with only the disadvantages of life? These brothers became hustlers and thieves. They measure their success by their ability to have a place to live—no matter how poor and drab the accommodation, to get to eat and to budget whatever money they make to pay for the bare necessities. Lincoln used to make his money scamming people with the card game Three-card Monte, but he stopped after tragedy struck. His younger brother Booth wants to follow in his footsteps and tries his best to practice the card scam. These brothers take sibling rivalry to a level that boggles the mind and the heart. While Lori-Parks gives them some moments of joy, as they recall times in their childhood when they worked together, you intensely feel their pain and frustration with their lot in life. From the time that the play starts, the storyline is presented fast and furious. The two actors, whether alone or together, have intensely quick-spoken words that reveal some of the deep disappointment, anguish and humiliation they have suffered and are currently suffering. Corey Hawkins is meticulously brilliant as older brother Lincoln. He vividly lets you feel every emotion his character has had to endure. While he is a master at Three-card Monte, he is a mess over the current cards life has dealt him. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes an astounding Broadway debut as Booth. He is the ultimate younger brother who loves/respects/envies/hates his older brother.
In October–November 2022, the sixth Black female playwright had a captivating play on the stage when the late Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” was mounted at the Public Theatre. “A Raisin in the Sun” was a stellar example of what excellent theater could be. Between Hansberry’s timeless script; the ingenious, brilliant direction by Robert O’Hara; and a stunning cast led by Tonya Pinkins, there was no stopping this play from being relevant to a modern audience and speaking the same truths it did when it was first done 65 years ago. The story of the Younger family in Chicago was a story of Black America. Of course, what was the most poignant aspect to this play was that the racism spotlighted in the ’50s was the same and in some cases, there is worse racism going on today. The play centers on the Younger family and the matriarch expecting a $10,000 life insurance check from her husband’s death. Her grown son has plans for that money, but she has other plans. Pinkins took the role of Lena Younger, the matriarch of this struggling Black family, to new heights. She inhabited this role with every fiber of her being. For those two hours and 40 minutes, she truly was Lena Younger, with all the emotions, anger, stress and hope that a mother can have for her children. François Battiste bought a strength, frustration and a certain tenderness, but also despair, to his role as Walter Lee Younger. You felt everything that Walter was feeling. Mandi Masden hit the ground running as Ruth Younger and never let up. She embodies a loving mother, wife, daughter-in-law and Black woman trying to be there for a man that she didn’t recognize anymore. Paige Gilbert was spunky, outspoken and determined as Beneatha Younger. John Clay III was absolutely charming as Joseph Asagai, the Nigerian college student who Beneatha hoped would show her the way to her identity. Mister Fitzgerald did a suitable job as George Murchison, the rich college student who finds Beneatha’s dream to be a doctor unimportant. Perri Gaffney is outstanding in the role of Mrs. Johnson, a neighbor. Touissant Battiste, son of François, played the role of Travis Younger. This is his son’s first professional role and their chemistry on stage was wonderful. Calvin Dutton was marvelous in his dual roles as Bobo and Ghost. Jesse Pennington was amazing as Karl Lindner. There were so many scenes with rich dialogues that one can’t name them all, but one thing that I can attest to is how often audience members could be heard crying softly. The emotional ride that this family went on was something that we willingly accompany them on.
The Brooks Atkinson Theatre on W. 47 Street was renamed the Lena Horne Theatre on Nov. 1, 2022. This made history as the first Broadway theater named after a Black woman. Also in November, Kara Young was on Broadway again in “Cost of Living” and she was amazing in this play at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre for a limited run.
November 2022 found Theatre World Award winner Justin Cooley moving to Broadway, as the musical he made his debut in transferred to the Booth Theatre on W. 45th Street. Yes, “Kimberly Akimbo” has made it to the big time and the off-Broadway cast has come with it for the most part. It will run through March 2023. Two other Black performers are in showcased roles: Olivia Elease Hardy as Delia and Fernell Hogan as Martin. This musical by David Lindsay-Abaire is about Kimberly, a teenager with a rare disease, and her dysfunctional family and how she tries to cope with life when she moves to a new town.
November also saw another Black male writer’s work, when Jeff Augustin’s “Where the Mountain Meets the Sea” played at 131 W. 55th Street. The play was about the strained, difficult relationship that this Haitian/American man had with his father. The father, Jean, had dreams of a life in America and beliefs about what being a man incorporated. His son Jonah did not live up to those ideas and encountered a great deal of disapproval from his father. He grew up not accepted by anyone in his family and alone. Jonah finds himself reflecting on the harsh treatment he received from his father and his uncle. When his father died, he tried to get to see what type of person his father had been as he traveled a road his father had been on with his mother years before. There was a great tribute to Haiti’s beauty and the beauty of nature and a love for mountain music as the Bengsons supplied musical performances at important moments in the play. Billy Eugene Jones was absolutely heartwarming, determined and torn as Jean. Chris Myers gave a stunningly poignant performance that succeeded in showing compassion, understanding,and an epiphany for his character and for all those young Black men out there who need to feel that they are worthy of all the good things in life. There was smooth, engaging direction by Joshua Kahan Brody.
November 2022 meant the 50th Annual AUDELCO Awards for Excellence in Black Theatre. Held at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, it was a testament to the magnificent productions that were part of the 2021–2022 theater season. It was co-hosted by actor, singer, dancer and choreographer Ty Stephens, and actress, singer and Tony Award winner Lillias White. Always striving to do more than simply recognize excellence in performance, the AUDELCOs honored many with special awards, including presenting Sidney Poitier posthumously with a Humanitarian/Civil Rights Award and Bust. The Legacy Award went to the late Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll posthumously for the 50th anniversary of their groundbreaking production “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.” Lifetime Achievement Awards went to playwright Richard Wesley; actress, director and artistic director of New Federal Theatre Elizabeth Van Dyke; veteran actor Count Stovall; and actor/singer/producer Rome Neal. The Board of Directors’ Legacy Award went to Jeanne Parnell, WHCR host of “The Jeanne Parnell Show.” Board of Directors’ Lifetime Achievement Awards went to veteran journalist Don Thomas of the New York Beacon, and Harlem Assemblywoman Inez Dickens. Pioneers Awards were bestowed on director actor Ben Harney; Peggy Alston, executive director of Brooklyn Restoration Youth Academy; and Jamal Joseph, New Heritage Theatre Co. Impact Repertory Theatre. Lazette McCants, a long-time original officer of AUDELCO, received one as well. Celebrating 30 years-plus for the beloved film “The Five Heartbeats,” cast members received Outstanding Achievement Awards, including Harry Lennix, Leon, Michael Wright, Tico Wells and Carla Brothers. Special Achievement Awards went to veteran publicist Linda Stewart, It Is Done Communication and To Go Girl; Eric Lockley of the Movement Theatre Company and actor, singer, activist Anthony Wayne.
December 2022 delivered Jordan E. Cooper’s “Ain’t No Mo’” to the Belasco Theatre on W. 44th Street. In Cooper’s comedic production, there were vignettes that addressed how Blacks are viewed in this country and how the U.S. hates Blacks so much that they are being offered one-way tickets to go back to Africa. Cooper truly put the mistreatment and negative perception of Blacks in this country front and center. He starred as Peaches, the flight attendant who boarded passengers onto the plane going back to Africa. The play used very raw and real language. The ensemble cast played multiple roles and included most of the original off-Broadway, Public Theatre production actors: Fedna Jacquet, Passenger 1; Marchant Davis, Passenger 2; Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Passenger 4; and Crystal Lucas-Perry, Passenger 5, with a newcomer to the cast, Shannon Matesky, coming on board as Passenger 3. This production had captivating direction by Stevie Walker-Webb, who was also its original director. Sadly, this production didn’t get a chance to breathe on Broadway before it was closed abruptly on December 23.
December 2022 also saw the first play open at the newly renamed James Earl Jones Theatre on W. 48th Street as “Ohio State Murders” took to the stage. The drama, written by 91-year-old Adrienne Kennedy, marks the au thor’s Broadway debut and the seventh play by a Black female playwright in 2022. The drama looks at the racism that Kennedy faced in the ’40s and ’50s as a young, Black, female student at Ohio State University. The main character, Suzanne Alexander, is a successful playwright who comes back to her alma mater as a guest speaker and is asked to explain the violence in her plays and other works. The character was masterfully played by six-time-Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, and she is perfection from the opening scene. Through Suzanne, everyone gets to know the racism, cruelty and isolation that Black students faced at this higher place of learning. McDonald is joined by a stunningly memorable cast that includes Bryce Pinkham as Robert Hampshire, her white professor who finds himself conflicted, but I won’t say more. Abigail Stephenson plays a Black classmate Iris Ann, Mister Fitzgerald plays David Alexander/Val and Lizan Mitchell plays Mrs. Tyler/Miss Dawson/Aunt Louise. This play is riveting to watch and unfolds in 75 minutes. It runs through February 12, 2023. It is worth your time and attention. It also has powerful direction by Kenny Leon. He is definitely batting 1,000 in 2022.
2022 was absolutely beaming with Black brilliance, creativity and boldness. Some other shows that are featuring Black actors and are on Broadway are “Some Like It Hot,” “&Juliet,” “Between Riverside and Crazy,” and “The Collaboration.” Try to find a show and go!