Highlight significant moments in the history of black theater

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Theater would not be theater without the efforts of black artists, and it is important to know their impact on the industry. In honor of Black History Month, here is a timeline of milestones in theater performed by black professionals.

1903: In Dahomey

Composed by William Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar, Au Dahomey, which features emblematic figures of vaudeville Bert williams and Georges walker, is the first all-black musical to perform in a major Broadway theater.

1907: The oyster man

Popularizing the musical genre of ragtime, this musical makes Ernest Hogan the first African American to produce and star in a Broadway show.

1916: Rachel

Written by Angelina W. Grimke, Rachel becomes the first play both written by a black person and starring a black cast to be presented to a mixed audience.

1917: Three plays for a Negro theater

Shortly after Rachel’s success, Playwright Torrence of the ridges‘s Three Plays for a Negro Theater becomes the first Broadway play to feature an all-black cast.

1921: Shuffle Along

Created entirely by black theater artists and black performers, this musical review is a breakthrough for the African-American theater industry. He performed on Broadway for over 500 performances and toured for three years. This is the first show to feature a sophisticated black love story. After Shuffle Along, nine all-black shows opened on Broadway between 1921 and 1924.

1925: Apparitions

Author Anderson garland becomes Broadway’s first black playwright.

1950: South Pacific

Creating the iconic role of Bloody Mary in this legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Juanita Room becomes the first black artist to receive a Tony Award.

1959: Grapes in the sun

Lorraine Hansberry makes history with his play Raisin in the Sun. She became the first black playwright to see her work featured on Broadway, and the first and youngest black playwright to win a New York Critics’ Circle Award.

1962: without strings

Diahann Carol wins the Tony Award for “Best Actress in a Musical” for her portrayal of Barbara in this Richard rodgers musical, becoming the first black artist to win in the category of a leading role.

1967: Hello, Dolly!

Three years after this Tony-winning debut Jerry Herman musical, the cast is replaced by an all-black ensemble and directed by Broadway royalty Pearl Bailey like Dolly Levi. In addition to rave reviews, she received a special Tony Award the following year.

1969: The Great White Hope

Joining Juaita, Diahann and Pearl on the list of Tony Award winners is James earl jones. Only this time, Earl Jones won the award for “Best Lead Actor in a Play”, making him the first black winner in a non-musical category.

1975: the sorcerer

This all-black version of The Wizard of Oz is a defining moment in the history of black musical theater. Director Geoffroy Holder becomes the first black director to win the award for “Best Director in a Musical”, as well as the first to win “Best Costume Design in a Musical”. The Wiz also won “Best Musical”, “Best Original Score” (Charlie smalls), “Best Choreography” (Georges Faison), “Best Actor in a Musical” (Ted ross) and “Best Actress in a Musical” (Dee Dee Bridgewater).

1984 and 1991: The Tap Dance Kid and Miss Saigon

In 1984, Battle of Hinton won the Tony Award for “Best Actor in a Musical”, making him the first black performer to win two Tony Awards. Seven years later, he won the same award for his portrayal of John in Miss Saigon, making him the first black theater professional with three Tony Awards.

2002: Topdog / Underdog

Playwright Suzi Lori Parks becomes the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Topdog / Underdog Drama.

2002: resolutely modern Millie

Whoopi goldberg, who produced this Tony-award-winning musical, becomes the first (and only) black woman to achieve EGOT status. Goldberg received an Emmy for the Hattie mcdaniel documentary Beyond Tara, a Grammy for recording her solo Broadway show and an Oscar for her role in Ghost.

2008: Passing Strange

Singer-songwriter and playwright Stew becomes the first (and only) black recipient of the Tony Award for “Best Book in a Musical”.

2010: Memphis

Two years after a black artist finally received the Tony for “Best Book in a Musical”, Daryl Waters becomes the first (and only) black recipient of the Tony Award for “Best Orchestrations”.

2014: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

broadway star Audra McDonald sets the record for most winning performances by Tony and becomes the first (and only!) person to win in all four acting categories. McDonald’s has six Tony Awards for his work in Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, Porgy and Bess and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

2016: Hamilton and the color purple

For the first time, a black artist wins in each performance category. The range includes The Color Purple’s Cynthia Erivo (“Best Lead Actress in a Musical”), and Hamilton stars Leslie Odom Jr. (“Best Lead Actress in a Musical”), Daveed Diggs (“Best Starring Actor In A Musical”), and Renée Elise Goldsberry (“Best Actress Featured In A Musical”).

2018: The Ice Man is coming

George C. Wolfe receives another Tony nomination for directing The Iceman Cometh, continuing his reign as “Most Tony-nominated Black Theater Artist” with 23 in total.

2020: Antonyo Prize

Created to shed light on systemic racism in New York’s theater industry, the Antonyo Awards celebrate black theater performers working on and off Broadway. Genderless actor categories and online voting platforms act as progressive counterpoints to Tony Awards operations.

While these achievements should always be celebrated, it is important to recognize that the theater industry still has a long way to go. Tony Award categories like “Best Book of a Musical” and “Best Orchestrations” have only one black winner. And some, like “Best Lighting Design for a Play” and “Best Costume Design for a Play”, don’t. Color-conscious casting and hiring needs to be implemented more so that we can eliminate under-representation and injustice in our industry.


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