The African-American actors and actresses whose names have shone brightly on Broadway marquees earned their place in history not only through hard work, perseverance, and talent, but also because of the legacy left by those who came before them. Like the doors of many professions, those of the theater world were shut to minorities for decades. While the Civil War may have freed the slaves, it was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that the playing field began to level. In this remarkable book, theater producer and historian Stewart F. Lane uses words and pictures to capture this tumultuous century and to highlight the rocky road that black actors have travelled to reach recognition on the Great White Way.
After the Civil War, the popularity of the minstrel shows grew by leaps and bounds throughout the country. African Americans were portrayed by whites, who would entertain audiences in black face. While the depiction of blacks was highly demeaning, it opened the door to African-American performers, and by the late 1800s, a number of them were playing to full houses. By the 1920s, the Jazz Age was in full swing, allowing black musicians and composers to reach wider audiences. And in the thirties, musicals such as George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Eubie Blake’s Swing It opened the door a little wider.
As the years passed, black performers continued to gain ground. In the 1940s, Broadway productions of Cabin in the Sky, Carmen Jones, and St. Louis Woman enabled African Americans to demonstrate a fuller range of talents, and Paul Robeson reached national prominence in his awarding-winning portrayal of Othello. By the 1950s and ’60s, more black actors—including Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Sidney Poitier—had found their voices on stage, and black playwrights and directors had begun to make their marks.
Black Broadway provides an entertaining, poignant history of a Broadway of which few are aware. By focusing a spotlight on both performers long forgotten and on those whom we still hold dear, this unique book offers a story well worth telling.
Stewart F. Lane is a six-time Tony Award-winning Broadway producer for War Horse, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Two and Only, The Will Rogers Follies, and La Cage Aux Folles. He has also produced in Dublin and London, where his shows have been nominated for an Olivier. With a BFA from Boston University, Mr. Lane has acted, published two plays, and directed across the country, working with actors like Stephen Baldwin, Shannon Doherty, and Chazz Palminteri. He is co-owner of the Palace Theatre on Broadway and 47th Street, and, with partner Robert De Niro, he owns the Tribeca Grill.
Mr. Lane has served on the Board of Directors of the NY State Theater at Lincoln Centerand the Transitional Committee, where he appointed both the Commissioner for Cultural Affairs and the Commissioner of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting. He currently sits on the Board of Trustees of The Actors Fund of America. Lane is the author of the critically acclaimed books Let's Put on a Show! and Jews on Broadway, and is a highly sought-after speaker. He lives in Manhattan with his family. Visit him at www.mrbroadway.com.
In 1821, Alexander Brown, a free black, took a bold course of action. Using money he had earned as a ship’s steward, Brown founded the African Grove Theater, the first known theater established by and for African Americans in New York City. Finally, people of color were able to perform in plays of their own choosing. Finally, they were able to attend dramatic performances.
Because of the intense racism of the time, the African Grove had to move frequently from one area of the city to another, and in 1923, it was forced to close. But an important first step had been taken. Black people had, for a brief time, taken the stage. Their history in the American theater had begun.
Through text and photos, Black Broadway tells the story of the long road that people of color have taken from the first tentative productions at the African Grove to the grand stages of Broadway. Chapter 1 discusses the birth of American theater and examines how black people began to make their way in the field of entertainment. It looks at the era of the minstrel show, which, while demeaning to blacks, gave them the opportunity to ply their trade and develop their skills as performers. It also introduces the talented African-American composers, writers, and actors who produced the first black musicals to grace the stages of Manhattan.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, New York City received a flood of southern blacks in search of greater social and economic equality. Although these immigrants did not find the equal opportunities they sought, they did discover a growing metropolis that boasted not only a newly established theater district but also a popular form of entertainment known as vaudeville. Chapter 2 first explores the important role that African-American entertainers played in vaudeville. It then looks at turn-of-the-century African-American musicals and shares the initial attempts made by the black community to produce drama that represented their experience in America.
For most of the nation, the 1920s was a time of economic prosperity and high spirits. For African Americans, it also marked the birth of a social and artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Chapter 3 discusses this blossoming of black culture and looks at the groundbreaking dramas and musicals that enabled people of color to play their part on the Broadway stage during the Roaring Twenties.
Although the Great Depression had a devastating effect on all aspects of American life, including entertainment, New York continued to offer productions throughout this bleak period of our history. Chapter 4 provides a window to the theater of the time. It looks at a number of significant dramas, including a captivating all-black production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was funded by the Federal Government’s Negro Theater Project. It also explores musicals that stirred controversy, inspired praise, and launched the careers of great black performers.
By the 1950s, Americans had largely bounced back from both the Depression and World War II, and the country’s rising spirits were reflected in its theater. Chapter 5 first presents an array of fabulous musicals performed by great African-American actors and actresses. It then looks at the dramas of the fifties, including a landmark production that not only dealt with serious racial issues but also demonstrated that plays written by black artists could captivate theatergoers of all races.
Chapter 6 focuses on the turbulent sixties—a time of enormous social change in America and tremendous experimentation in the world of the theater. Long-standing conventions were being questioned, old barriers were being torn down, and African-American performers were being featured in greater numbers than ever before. This chapter explores the noteworthy productions born of this unique period of history.
Despite economic recession, the seventies and eighties would produce an astounding variety of musicals, including all-black revivals of traditionally white plays and revues that honored legendary African-American songwriters. Unfortunately, Broadway was far less hospitable to black dramas, but off-Broadway filled the gap, with the Public Theater and other venues offering opportunities to both black writers and black performers. This period also saw the emergence of August Wilson, an African-American playwright who would chronicle black history through a series of brilliant plays. In Chapter 7, you’ll learn of both the struggles and the triumphs of these decades.
The 1990s began with a much-needed revitalization of the theater district. Now theatergoers could better enjoy the fruits of Broadway, including a host of plays that featured African-American performers. As the nineties gave birth to a new millennium, a quiet revolution began to take place as African-American producers joined the theater community. Black playwrights, composers, and performers had been part of the Great White Way for many years, but black producers had been few and far between. As this began to change, new opportunities would arise for actors of color, and—just as important—African-American audiences would take an increasing interest in what Broadway had to offer.
Change comes slowly and often painfully in any area of society. For two centuries, African Americans struggled to become part of Broadway, and while the fight continues, many battles have been won and significant changes have been made. It is my hope that Black Broadway serves as a guide to the many people who have blazed a trail to the Great White Way and made it more accessible to everyone—black and white—who seeks to entertain and enlighten us through the performing arts.
Foreword by Kenny Leon
1. African-American Theater Through the Nineteenth Century
2. The Turn of the Century
3. The 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance
4. Breadlines to Breakthroughs: The 1930s and 1940s
5. Postwar Broadway: The 1950s
6. The Turbulent Sixties
7. The Door Has Opened: The 1970s and 1980s
8. Broadway Now and Tomorrow
About the Author