2017 was historic for Blacks on Broadway and in theater in general

Linda Armstrong | 1/4/2018, midnight
The year 2017 was historic, as African-Americans made great strides on Broadway.
Michelle Wilson and John Earl Jelks in "Sweat" Joan Marcus photo

The year 2017 was historic, as African-Americans made great strides on Broadway. Ruben Santiago-Hudson got the ball rolling when he was able to mount August Wilson’s stunning drama, “Jitney” on Broadway through the Manhattan Theatre Club. He labored for 10 years to bring this project to the stage. Santiago-Hudson made history because with this play making it to Broadway, all of August Wilson’s series of 10 plays had been presented on a Broadway stage.

What made it even more memorable was the superb cast that Santiago-Hudson, who directed the production, brought together. The cast included John Douglas Thompson, Anthony Chisholm, Brandon J. Dirden, Michael Potts, Keith Randolph Smith, Ray Anthony Thomas, Andre Holland, Harvy Blanks and Carra Patterson. And I was not the only person to think the cast and production were superb. They received accolades later in the year at the 71st Annual Tony Awards winning Best Revival of a Play. “Jitney” was also honored by the AUDELCO Awards this year with the creation of the “Jitney Award,” which was given to Santiago-Hudson. AUDELCO celebrates excellence in Black theater.

A first that happened on Broadway was the role of Raoul in the Tony Award winning “Phantom of the Opera” saw its first African-American actor as Jordan Donica took on the role and did a marvelous job. This young actor delivered a fresh, vibrant, intense performance.

Although he didn’t take the stage in a production, James Earl Jones received a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award at the 71st annual Tony Awards.

African-American women playwrights such as Lynn Nottage were acknowledged in 2017. Nottage wrote a captivating play that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Sweat.” “Sweat” portrayed what happened to factory workers when the factory had serious issues and finally closed. Nottage brought reality to the stage to show how real-life issues destroy lives. This production started at The Public Theater and eventually was moved to Broadway. The cast was splendid and included African-Americans Michelle Wilson, Khris Davis, John Earl Jelks and Lance Coadie Williams, along with Johanna Day, James Colby, Will Pullen, Alison Wright and Carlo Alban. The production had stunning direction by Kate Whoriskey. Nottage was honored at the 45th annual AUDELCO Awards with an Outstanding Achievement Award for her distinctive works.

A bootylicious musical was bouncing at Playwrights Horizons as “Bella: An American Tall Tale” played to a packed and happy house. The musical had a book, music and lyrics by Kirsten Childs. The cast had incredible voices, energy and wonderful comedic timing and included Ashley D. Kelley, Natasha Yvette Williams, Britton Smith, Brandon Gill, Kenita R. Miller, Marinda Anderson, Jo’nathan Michael, Gabrielle Reyes, Olli Haaskivi, Yurel Echezarreta, Devic Massey and Paolo Montalban. This musical was splendid and recognized at the 45th annual AUDELCO Awards with Musical Production of the Year and Director Musical Production—Robert O’Hara; Outstanding Performance in a Musical, Female—Natasha Yvette Williams and choreography—Camille A. Brown.

African-American playwright Dominique Morisseau had a powerful, poignant, profound message in her play “Pipeline” that played at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Morriseau brilliantly took on the problems faced by young Black males in high school. She accomplished this feat through captivating writing and by taking footage of high school males fighting in the bathroom and on the bus and combining it with disturbing and repeated references to Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son,” in which the tragic main character, Bigger Thomas, a young Black male, is pushed too far. Morisseau’s play showed the issues between Black males and their absentee fathers, who only send a check, but there’s no relationship. She showed the anger that can build up in a young man. This riveting drama starred Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood, Morocco Omari, Heather Velazquez, Tasha Lawrence and Jamie Lincoln Smith. It had cohesive, captivating direction by Lileana Blain-Cruz. AUDELCO also recognized Morisseau with an Outstanding Achievement Award.

In August, the destination was The National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, N.C. This amazing Black theatre family reunion has a new head. Jackie Alexander is the new artistic director, an enormous accomplishment. He is truly carrying on the legacy of festival founder, Larry Leon Hamlin, and he brought new aspects to the festival. He had plays that dealt with health issues, and then had medical professions in a talk-back with the audience after the performances.

“Six Degrees of Separation” played on Broadway and it was marvelous. The entire cast was impressive. The lead cast members included African-American Corey Hawkins, along with Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey. Trip Cullman’s director was on-point.

Lucas Hnath’s play, “A Doll’s House: Part 2,” played at the John Golden Theatre on West 45th Street. Looking at Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” drama about a woman named Nora, unhappy in her marriage to Torvald to the point that she walks out on him and their children to have a life. This play brings you 15 years later, and Nora is back. She isn’t back to stay; she is in fact happy with the life she has. She is back to clear up a loose end. This production starred Condola Rashad in a perfect example of nontraditional casting. She plays Emmy the daughter of two white parents, Nora, played by Laurie Metcalf, and Torvald, played by Chris Cooper. Sam Gold’s direction was riveting. Later in the year the cast changed, and Stephen McKinley Henderson took on the role of Torvald with a white wife and daughter. Henderson’s approach to the role was stirring to watch. He played it with strength, conviction and decency. Watching him you knew that you were witnessing the work of a veteran actor.

“Sweetee” was sensational at the Signature Theatre. This new musical had an interesting and entertaining book, music and lyrics by Gail Kriegel. It told the story of a mulatto girl who lived in a small southern town in the 1930s. Her white mother was a prostitute, but it’s her only means to support Sweetee, who made a little money singing. When Sweetee’s mother died, she had to go and live with Reverend Dan, a white minister who has a group of minority orphans he has given a home to. These orphans played instruments and sang to raise money to try and fund a home for the orphanage. The musical lets the audience experience the racism in the South that minorities had to endure. This musical showed the darker side of life. The music was engaging, and the actors gave a wonderful ensemble performance. You couldn’t help but be riveted by “Sweetee.” What was amazing to me was that Jordan Tyson, who played Sweetee, was making her off-Broadway debut. This young woman was phenomenal in this role. Her acting was on-point and her singing voice was fantastic. At the 45th annual AUDELCO Awards, she received the Rising Star Award for this stupendous performance. Jelani Alladin was completely charming as Cat Jones and he had a marvelous voice. He is now preparing to star as Swen in Disney’s “Frozen,” coming to Broadway in 2018. The rest of the talented cast for “Sweetee” included Cedric Cannon, Hugh Cha, Adante Carter, Jeremiah James, Katherine Weber, Amir Royale, Morgan Siobhan Green, Dave Droxler and Katy Blake. “Sweetee” had incredible direction and choreography by Patricia Birch, and delightful music direction and orchestration by Doug Katsaros.

Classical Theatre of Harlem did their rendition of the classic production, “The Three Musketeers,” at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, at 122nd Street and Fifth Avenue, for free. This production demonstrated the phrase, “Some of the best things in life are free.” Every aspect of this production was superb. The stunning set by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader transported the audience to Paris and London in the 1600s. The impeccable costumes of Rachel Dozier-Ezell were a pleasure for the eyes. The brilliant lighting design by Kate Bashore assisted in moving the story along beautifully. The sword-fighting scenes directed by Emmanuel Brown were some of the funniest, slow motion fight scenes I’ve ever experienced. Tiffany Rea-Fisher supplied some of the most fantastic choreography for this flowing production. You can tell that production director, Jenny Bennett, painstakingly put together this incredible play. The exceptional cast who brought this marvelous production to life, some of whom play multiple roles, included Miriam A. Hyman as D’Artagnan, and as the three Musketeers, Emmanuel Brown as Athos, Reynaldo Piniella as Porthos and Brandon Carter as Aramis. There was also Anthony Vaughn Merchant as Louis, R.J. Foster as Rochefort, Jamar Brathwaite as Monsier de Treville, Michael Early as Cardinal Richelieu, Ava McCoy as Constance, Nedra Snipes as Madam Bonacieux, Khiry Walker as Lord Buckingham, Avon Haughton as Jussac, Afia Abusham as Anne of Austria, Jeffrey March Alkins as Planchet, Shayshanhn MacPherson as Alexandre Dumas, Jorge I. Sanchez as Bicarat and Piera Van de Wiel as Milady, and the dancers were members of the Elisa Monte Dance.

Phylicia Rashad and Vinie Burrows were among an all-star cast at the Public Theater’s Delacorte Theater for Shakespeare in the Park that presented a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The National Black Theatre presented a remarkable play that was a true story, “Port Chicago 50.” This dramatic production written by Dennis Rowe and David Shackelford told the story of the 200 Black sailors that died in an explosion on naval ships on a July evening in 1944. The production shares the stories of the Black sailors who died and those who survived. The lead role of Freddie Meeks was played by Hal Williams, who was joined by a very talented cast that included Anika C. McFall, Harry Fowler, Matt Jennings, Oren Williams, Izzy Dixon, CJ Dickinson, Daphne Danielle, William Jousset, Ryan Franks, Darrell Phillip and Howard Lockie. Rowe also directed the production with pure brilliance.

Harlem Repertory Theatre Company performed Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” at 240 E. 123rd St. at Second Avenue. Amanda Hargrove was powerful and captivating, while also being a sympathetic character as she brilliantly took on the lead role of the matriarch, Lena Younger. She was a woman with wisdom, love and old-fashioned values. Mario C. Brown was riveting as Walter Lee Younger. He approached the role with a frustration and aggression that grabbed one’s attention. Kyria Geneva was perfectly cast as Ruth Younger, the emotional rollercoaster she rode between Lena and Walter Lee was one she took the audience on. Yanece Cotto had a spunkiness and fire to her portrayal of Beneatha, Walter Lee’s younger sister who is studying to be a doctor. Cotto demonstrated the character’s multiple layers. Dexter Thomas-Payne was delightful as Asagia, the Nigerian student interested in Beneatha. His character was passionate, but also wise. A.J. Acevedo was entertaining to watch as rich, shallow George Murchinson. Michael Joseph Whitten gave a memorable performance as Karl Linder, the white man from the welcoming committee, coming to let the Youngers know they are not welcome. Michael Brown-Taveras was capable as Travis, Walter Lee and Ruth’s son. Keith Lee Grant gave this classic a unique presentation as its director.

I have never seen such a perfect musical as I did sitting in the audience of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway as I watched “Prince of Broadway,” a love letter to Broadway musical director Hal Prince. This musical let audiences experience so many great numbers from more than 20 Hal Prince musicals. The production featured the talents of Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper, who sang songs that normally are not done by Black actors, such as “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” He also sang as Sweeney Todd. African-American Bryonha Marie Parham sang many of the songs and had a radiant voice. The rest of the phenomenal cast included Karen Ziemba, Tony Yazbeck, Kaley Ann Voorhees, Janet Dacal, Emily Skinner, Brandon Uranowitz and Michael Xavier. The musical had the distinction of being co-directed by Prince and longtime collaborator Susan Stroman.

The Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn came back with a vengeance to a renovated space at Restoration Plaza, with a stunning production of “The Old Settler,” the Henry Redwood classic play. The production featured brilliant performances by Pauletta Pearson Washington, who played Elizabeth; Denise Burse, who movingly portrayed Quilly, Elizabeth’s sister; Warner Miller, who played Husband, a young man from down South and their roomer; and Maechi Aharanwa, who played Lou Bessie, Husband’s love interest. The play was beautifully directed by Michele Shay.

From the time that J. Alphonse Nicholson took the stage at the Castillo Theatre as New Federal Theatre presented him in a one-man show, “Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green,” I was enthralled. The stories were written by Howard L. Craft. Each incarnation allowed the audience to experience the racism that Black men have gone through in this country and the self-hatred that many have experienced. The play was directed by Joseph Megel.

The Negro Ensemble Company ended its 50th season with the classic drama, “A Soldier’s Play” by Charles Fuller. The production was riveting to watch and reminded one of the brilliance of this classic storyline. Fuller let’s everyone know about the racism and self-hatred that Blacks in the Army in the 1940s faced.

“A Soldier’s Play” tells the story of the murder of Sergeant Vernon Waters and the investigation that followed. Each of the soldiers on the Army base share their past experiences with the sergeant, a man who was very mean and would verbally and physically abuse the Black soldiers under his command. The audience gets to hear what Waters was like through his men and witness the tension between the white captain and the Black lawyer assigned to investigate the murder—Captain Davenport. It was amazing to watch this timeless classic being given a new captivating delivery. And the cast was superb. Gil Tucker gave a powerful delivery as Sergeant Waters. His intensity in the role was fantastic to witness. Chaz Reuben was poignant as Captain Davenport, the Black lawyer who worked very hard to find out what really happened. Fulton Hodges was superb as Private James Wilkie, a man who had a lot of history with the sergeant. One of the actors whose performance was off the charts was Jimmy Gary Jr. as Private C.J. Memphis. Memphis was a big, guitar playing, blues singing, Mississippi boy, who Waters totally despised. Waters set Memphis up so that he could put him in prison. Gary delivered a tremendous performance as Memphis, you felt his hurt, pain and fear as he sat confined in a prison cell. His performance moved me tears. The rest of this remarkable cast included Jay Ward as Corporal Bernard Cob, Buck Hinkle as Captain Charles Taylor, Adrain Washington as PFC Melvin Peterson, Horace Glasper as Private Louis Henson, PJ Max as Private Tony Smalls, Derek Dean as Lieutenant Byrd and Aaron Sparks as Captain Wilcox. This production has amazing direction by the one and only Charles Weldon, NEC’s phenomenal artistic director, and assistant direction by Reggie Wilson. These two men brought this production to life in a way that helped it to explode with a vitality. It played at Theatre 80 St. Marks at 80 St. Marks Place.

John Leguizamo has a fantastically funny, one-man show, “Latin History for Morons” playing at Studio 54 on West 54th Street. He lets the audience know all the betrayal that Latins have experienced throughout history. The play is incredibly directed by Tony Taccone.

“The Lion King” marked its 20th year on Broadway and that is such an accomplishment. Millions of people have seen this musical production, and it’s performed all over the world in several languages. The Broadway cast is perfect, with some of the best voices you will hear on stage and includes Tshidi Manye as the original Rafiki, L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa, Stephen Carlile as Scar, Chondra Profit Ardrey as Sarabi, Kenneth Aikens as Young Simba, Rika Nishikawa as Young Nala, Jelani Remy as Simba, Adrienne Walker as Nala, Cameron Pow as Zazu; Fred Berman as Timon, Ben Jeffrey as Pumbaa, Bonita Hamilton as Shenzi, James Brown-Orleans as Banzai and Enrique Segura as Ed. “The Lion King” is playing at the Minskoff Theatre on West 45th Street and Broadway.

“Once on This Island,” playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre on West 50th Street is setting new standards on Broadway. It is being done in a fantastic revival. The audience meets Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie, characters poignantly played by Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller. Ti Moune as a young girl is performed by Emerson Davis, who brings a lovely innocence to the part. As a teenager—passionately played by Hailey Kilgore—Ti Moune dreams of going places and living a life much more than the simple village existence she has known. She sees a mulatto young man named Daniel—deliciously played by Isaac Powell— in a sports car and dreams of doing more. The gods—Asaka, Agwe, Papa Ge and Erzulie—decide that Ti Moune and Daniel should have a chance at love and arrange an unusual meeting. The gods are magnificently performed by Alex Newell (Asaka), Quentin Earl Darrington (Agwe), Lea Salonga (Erzulie) and Merle Dandridge (Papa Ge). This musical is something to be kept in a special place in your heart. It is something that you will always remember and want to share with others.