Remembering the Theatrical Career of Chadwick Boseman

Before the ”Black Panther” star became a Hollywood icon, he was a playwright on the rise.

Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman
(© Gage Skidmore)

Chadwick Boseman has died at the age of 43 after battling colon cancer for four years. Boseman had never spoken publicly about his diagnosis; over the course of his illness, he managed to shoot and complete work in iconic films like Black Panther, Marshall, Da 5 Bloods, and several others. But before Boseman became an international superstar and cinematic hero, he spent his early years working heavily in the theater industry.

Born and raised in South Carolina, Boseman wrote his first play in high school. Crossroads, which was performed by students, was written in response to the death of a classmate, a young man on his basketball team who was shot and killed. Though Boseman was an accomplished basketball player, recruited to play in college, he chose a different path and graduated in 2000 from Howard University with a bachelor of arts in directing.

At Howard, one of his teachers was the actor/director Phylicia Rashad, who would become something of a mentor for Boseman. When he was accepted at the British American Dramatic Academy at Oxford but couldn't pay the entire tuition, Rashad called in some financial assistance from some of her friends. Boseman later revealed that his benefactor was Denzel Washington, who serves as producer of one of Boseman's final films, the upcoming screen adaptation of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

After graduating, Boseman taught acting to students in the Schomburg Junior Scholars Program, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. He immersed himself in the hip-hop theater scene, working with Howard classmate Kamilah Forbes to create the play with music Rhyme Deferred, which toured the United States and appears in the Hip Hop Theatre Anthology The Fire This Time. He wrote and directed the play Hieroglyphic Graffiti, which was produced at Negro Playwright's Theatre, Kuntu Repertory, the National Black Theatre Festival, and the Hip Hop Theatre Festival.

Boseman's most well-known play is titled Deep Azure, which was commissioned and produced by the Congo Square Theatre Company. It earned him a 2006 Jeff Award nomination for Best New Play.

He described his theatrical aesthetic in an artist's statement: "Deep Azure was an experiment to push the boundaries of the genre of Hip Hop theater, which was itself pushing the boundaries of theater. My first work in the Hip Hop genre, Rhyme Deferred, of which I was a co-writer and performer, fit into the Hip Hop aesthetic because it used the five elements of Hip Hop to tell the story. My second work in the genre, Hieroglyphic Graffiti, a modern retelling of the Ausar-Auset myth, was based in the poetry and culture of Hip Hop but was not written as a musical text. Deep Azure is, in some ways, a fusion and progression of my previous plays, as well as a fusion of cultural expressions spanning distances and time periods."

A 2000 Drama League Directing Fellow, Boseman has directed plays including Dutchman and The Colored Museum, and appeared on stage in productions of Zooman and the Sign, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and more. He won an AUDELCO Award for his supporting role in Ron Milner's Urban Transitions, directed by Woodie King Jr. and produced by King's New Federal Theatre. He had workshopped the leading role in the musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, but chose the role of James Brown in the biopic Get On Up instead of coming to Broadway.

Boseman is survived by his wife and family.