6 Landmark African-American Stage Works to Revive on Broadway
From James Baldwin to Lorraine Hansberry, here are the plays and musicals we'd like to see get their due in New York City.
By the end of the 2018-19 season, two more acclaimed African-American playwrights will have made their Broadway debuts: Tarell Alvin McCraney with Choir Boy, and Dominique Morisseau with her Temptations musical, Ain't Too Proud. Yet despite these and other artists of color creating new work, and with a plethora of classics by beloved writers that have yet to be revived, there's still room for much more diversity on Broadway. To that end, we went into the theatrical canon to explore six important African-American stage works that deserve a re-viewing in 2019, and here's why.
By Amiri Baraka
Dutchman — the first play by Amiri Baraka, born LeRoi Jones — may have been written in 1964, but it has lost none of its power to shock. If anything, the Obie Award-winning play's depiction of a confrontation between a femme fatale white woman and an emasculated black man on a New York City subway plays even more provocatively today as race and gender relations have become more fraught in our current sociopolitical moment.
2. The Amen Corner
By James Baldwin
James Baldwin is best known for novels and essay collections such as Go Tell It on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son. But about the same time that those early works came out, he published his first play, The Amen Corner, in 1954. The story revolves around a Harlem storefront church, its pastor, Sister Margaret, and the fraught relationship that she has with the church leaders, her African-American congregation, and her family. The play had a brief run on Broadway in 1965, and it now seems long overdue for a revival. As Baldwin's prescient novels are being rediscovered by a new generation, it is time to revisit his theatrical works as well.
3. Street Scene
Lyrics by Langston Hughes, music by Kurt Weill, book by Elmer Rice
Langston Hughes is the most celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance, but did you know that he was also a Broadway lyricist? Hughes penned lyrics for Street Scene, which won the Tony Award for Best Original Score in 1947 (the first year the awards were given). Strangely, however, that award was only presented to the show's composer, Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera). Taking place in front of a crowded tenement, Street Scene puts early 20th-century Manhattan into the form of grand opera. Even if it never again finds a home on the Broadway stage, it is past time for the Tonys to gives Hughes his due and posthumously recognize him as a Tony Award-winning lyricist.
4. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf
By Ntozake Shange
The late Ntozake Shange's Tony-nominated For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which ran on Broadway for nearly two years from 1976-1978, is neither a play nor a musical, but is described as a choreopoem, "in which a black woman explores inner space in seven facets of herself, with poetry dance and stories." Only the second work by a black woman to be performed on Broadway, For Colored Girls… was turned into a 2010 Tyler Perry film, starring Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Kerry Washington, and others. While the performances in that film were widely lauded, the film itself received only middling reviews. Now's the time to try again to make this important work accessible to today's audiences, by putting it back onstage where it belongs.
5. The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window
by Lorraine Hansberry
If you know Lorraine Hansberry, chances are it's because of A Raisin in the Sun — Hansberry's first play, and the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. It was revived in 2004 (starring Sean Combs), and then again in 2014 (starring Denzel Washington), joining its 1961 film adaptation, its 1973 Broadway musical (titled Raisin), and its 1989 TV film in the jam-packed Raisin in the Sun catalogue. And yet, Broadway hasn't seen Hansberry's second and final play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, since 1972 (a revival that followed its original 1964 production). The play touches on racial issues, but was ahead of its time in additionally tackling suicide, homosexuality, and women's equality. Perhaps 2019 is the perfect time to give Walter Lee a break, and pay a long overdue visit to Hansberry's lesser-known work.
6. Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Book by George C. Wolfe, music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, original book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles
Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed was almost too good to be true. Inspired by the history of Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, F.E. Miller, and Aubrey Lyles's Shuffle Along, one of the first musicals to be produced, written, and performed entirely by African-Americans, this 2016 musical featured a book and visionary direction by George C. Wolfe, astonishing choreography by Savion Glover, and an incredible cast led by Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Joshua Henry, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Adrienne Warren. Looking at success and its aftermath, Wolfe's Shuffle Along played an all-too-brief run at the Music Box Theatre in 2016, but it still deserves to be running. It was just too good.