Black Theater Year In Review, Part 1

Linda Armstrong | 12/26/2019, 1:27 p.m.
2019 was truly a year of Splendor for Black Theater! It was a year where the great, superbly talented, Andre ...
Andre de Shields Matthew Murphy photo

2019 was truly a year of Splendor for Black Theater! It was a year where the great, superbly talented, Andre De Shields, “FINALLY” received his first TONY Award! After 50 years in the business De Shields won his First Tony Award for his role as Hermes in the brand new, very original, Broadway musical “Hadestown.” This is a man, who for five decades has been a consummate professional, completely dedicated to and focused on his craft, and he has finally received his due! It was also a year that saw several brilliant works by Black female playwrights like Charly Evon Simpson with “Behind the Sheet,” Loy A. Webb with “The Light,” Leslie Malaika Lewis with “Miracle In Rwanda,” Tori Sampson with “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfu—a,” Chisa Hutchinson with “Proof of Love,” Lydia Diamond with “Toni Stone,” Karimah with “Imminently Yours,” Deidra McDowell with “Down To Eartha,” Celeste Bedford Walker with “Sassy Mamas,” Helena D. Lewis with “SHEnanigans,” and Anna Deavere Smith with the revival of her play “Fires In The Mirror.” When it came to musicals, on Broadway Katori Hall gave us the musical for music icon Tina Turner with “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” and off-Broadway Lynn Nottage gave us the book for the musical, “The Secret Life of Bees.” It was a year that saw a magnificent revival of the brilliance and truth of the late Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf.” Black male playwrights who did phenomenal work included Larry Muhammad with “Looking for Leroy,” Tarell Alvin McCraney with “Choir Boy”––which was transferred to Broadway, Jordan E. Cooper with “Ain’t No Mo’,” Ishmael Reed with the “Haunting of Lin Manuel Miranda,” Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj with “Sweet Lorraine,” Keith Hamilton Cobb with “American Moor,” Glynn Borders with “The Dark Star From Harlem: The Spectacular Rise of Josephine Baker,” Jeff Augustin with “The New Englanders,” David Lamb with “The Best Things In Life,” and Donja R. Love with “One in Two.” It was a year of acknowledging the best in our people and rewarding people like Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones Harvey, founders of Front Row Productions and the only lead Black Broadway producers for 13 years and this year receivers of the Producer of the Year 2019 Award from Broadway Global!

When I attended theater in 2019 I found myself excited, inspired, enlightened and at times I felt so emotionally drained, but also grateful. Grateful that our people created works that connect with us all and talked about what we face in our family lives, society and this country. Works we not only relate to, but also learn from.

The year began with “Behind the Sheet,” presented by the Ensemble Studio Theatre, a brilliant, riveting production about how the man dubbed the “Father of Gynecology,” Dr. J. Marion Sims, received his success through the abuse of his Black female slaves. Sims performed experimental surgical procedures on his Black female slaves he had impregnated and did so without any anesthesia. Even once anesthesia was introduced to the world he didn’t use it on his Black slaves because he felt Black women had a higher tolerance for pain. Playwright Charly Evon Simpson showed the audience that “Behind the Sheet” was cruelty, inhumanity and ignorance. She told the play as a tribute to the 10-12 enslaved women whose bodies were used for scientific experiments. The cast was superb and included Naomi Lorrain, Amber Reacuchean Williams, Jehan O. Young, Cristina Pitter, Nia Calloway, Joel Ripka, Megan Tusing and Stephen James Anthony. And it had thought-provoking direction by Colette Robert.

In February “Choir Boy” by Tarell Alvin McCraney was mounted on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre after having a successful off-Broadway run. Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, it told the story of Pharus, a young gay male at a Black all-boys prep school and it shared all the problems he faced. This was a young man who knew loneliness, rejection and discrimination. He was someone who was mistreated by his classmates and the institution which was supposed to help him become a well-educated and well-rounded young man. The play, which had some fantastic singing and collegiate Step numbers featured an amazing cast which included Jeremy Pope (currently on Broadway in “Ain’t Too Proud”); Quintan Johnson; John Clay III, Nicholas L. Ashe; Caleb Eberhardt, Daniel Bellomy, Jonathan Burke, Gerald Caesar and Marcus Gladney, along with Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper and Austin Pendleton. It has mesmerizing direction by Trip Cullman.

Every February one can look forward to the Black Theater Preview that Marcia Pendleton, founder of Walk Tall Girl Productions presented at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In 2019 she did it in collaboration with not only the Schomburg, but also NYC Black Theatre Network. What’s great about attending this event is that you get to hear about upcoming productions, hear from the creators as to what their works are about and what inspired the stories, see scenes from the plays, and mark your calendars for upcoming shows. There are also panels with playwrights discussing the state of Black theater and Black theater institutions, the struggles they are facing, and their imperative importance in our communities. And did I mention this event is always free? You just have to RSVP.

Check it out.

In March, “The Light,” presented by MCC Theater was a story by Loy A. Webb which examined the relationship between Black men and women and left audiences stunned. It looked at the issue of how Black women are sometimes made to feel less than their mates. The play had a powerhouse of emotions and vividly demonstrated how Black men and women view each other. The production featured impeccable performances by Mani Masden and McKinley Belcher III, accented by the splendid direction of Logan Vaughn. Patrick J. Ssenjovu was brilliant and stunning as Kennedy a Kenyan cab driver in “Death of a Driver,” which was written by Will Snider and presented by Urban Stages. His co-star was Sarah Baskin and the play about the relationship between the Kenyan cab driver and a white American engineer was at times shocking and brutal. It featured poignant direction by Kim T. Sharp. “Looking For Leroy,” was presented by New Federal Theatre at the Castillo Theatre and it looked at the life and legacy of the late Amiri Baraka. It was a stunning tribute to the creative mind of Baraka, written by Larry Muhammad. The two-character play starred Kim Sullivan and Tyler Fauntleroy and it had rich direction by Petronia Paley.

April meant Ben Vereen at Dizzy’s Club at Lincoln Center and he dazzled the audience as only Ben Vereen can do, performing Jazz favorites. This man is an entertainment dynamo and he shared that part of his secret is that he relies on prayer and meditation. God bless Mr. Vereen, he is a treasure! No one could ever again look at Black people’s relationship to being in this country the same way after seeing the groundbreaking debut production of Jordan E. Cooper, “Ain’t No Mo’,” which played at the Public Theater. Cooper not only wrote the play but is featured in it. Cooper is a fresh, new voice on the theater scene. Using a variety of scenes he depicted the urgency of the desperate situations that Blacks face in this country, a country they were brought to as cargo. He lays everything out there, painting a total picture, which included Black-on-Black hatred. This emotional juggernaut profoundly impacted the audience who laughed, cried and at times got angry! The ensemble was amazing and included Fedna Jacquet, Marchant Davis, Simone Recasner, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry, and Hermon Whaley Jr. It also had powerful direction by Stevie Walker-Webb. Theater is there to enlighten, educate and reveal the horrible things that people have survived through to become stronger than ever and that was evident when audiences got to experience the one-woman show, “Miracle In Rwanda” about the genocide of over 1 million Tutsis by the Hutu tribe in Rwanda. The play is a true story as told by one of the survivors, Leslie Malaika Lewis. She wrote the play with Edward Vilga and it is the story of her entire family being murdered and her having to be hidden months in another person’s bathroom with other females. As if the story wasn’t about a powerful enough subject matter, it was even more stunning as it was performed by Rwandan actress Malaika Uwamahoro, who portrays 15 different characters. The production presented on the 25 Anniversary of the genocide was performed at Theater Row with outstanding direction by George Drance.

May saw playwright Tori Sampson debut her new play, “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhf---a” at Playwrights Horizon. This phenomenal production utilized folklore and an African cast and probed how we define what is beautiful, especially among Black women. She took audiences on a journey of discovery and enlightenment. The play had humor, truth and some incredible gospel singing! The ensemble was not less than perfect and included Nike Uche Kadri, Maechia Aharanwa, Jason Bowen, Antoinette Crowne-Legacy, Miririai Sithole, Phumzile Sitole, Rotimi Agbabiaka, and Carla R. Stewart and astonishing direction by Leah C. Gardiner. Broadway saw the return of Andre De Shields during his 50th year in the business as Hermes in “Hadestown,” which as I mentioned in the beginning earned him a much-deserved Tony Award and also a Drama Desk Award. “Hadestown” is a musical like no other seen on Broadway, it is musical perfection as it tells the story of the Greek gods and Orpheus and Eurydice. What I particularly could appreciate about it is it utilizes many people of color in prominent roles and in featured roles, including Amber Gray, Patrick Paige, Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, Kay Trinidad, Afra Hines, Timothy Hughes, John Kraine, Kimberly Marable and Ahmad Simmons. The musical has thrilling direction by Rachel Chavkin. “Proof Of Love” by Chisa Hutchinson poignantly and delicately examined the issues that a marriage of a Black couple from different sides of the fence could have after 32 years. When her husband is in a car accident and in a coma, Constance finds another woman’s text in his phone and realizes that he has another life that she never knew existed. Sitting in the hospital with him she begins to reproach herself about what she didn’t give him in their relationship that would drive him to the arms of another woman. The play was well written and stirringly acted by one-woman Brenda Pressley. Presented at the Minetta Lane Theatre by Audible Theatre and New York Theatre Workshop it had riveting direction by Jade King Carroll.

“Hamilton” is such an incredibly successful musical on Broadway, but the Nuyorican Poet’s Café chose to put a spotlight on the real story of one of the founding fathers of our country, with it’s very revealing play the “Haunting of Lin Manuel Miranda,” which was written by Ishmael Reed. The play told the historical truths about Alexander Hamilton as a slave owner and the story of the cruel Schuyler family that brutalized their slaves. The ensemble cast gave memorable performances and included Jesse Bueno, Tommie J. Moore, Roz Fox, Monisha Shiva, Malike Iman, Vanessa Lovestone, Pepesi Robinson, Erielkina Pizzaro, Robert Turner, N. Allam Foster, Lisa Pakulski and Tom Angelo. Rome Neal marvelously directed this piece. Oh, what a night, were my thoughts as I watched one of the most original, brilliant renditions of Shakespeare’s classic “Much Ado About Nothing” presented in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, through the Public Theater of course. This production was full of awesome singing, dancing, R&B, hip hop, and gospel singing. Yes, I’m talking about “Much Ado About Nothing.” Director Kenny Leon’s vision for this production was outstanding! He made it into a musical and it worked brilliantly! Then he presented it with an all-Black cast of dynamite performers. Who could ask for anything more? The star-studded cast included Danielle Brooks, Chuck Cooper, Billy Eugene Jones, Margaret Odett, Grantham Coleman, Jeremie Harris, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Olivia Washington, Daniel Croix Henderson, James Lincoln Smith, Erik Laray Harvey, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Lateefah Holder, Khiry Walker, Kai Heath, and Hubert Point-Du Jour. There was also irresistible choreography by Camille A. Brown. Leon was awarded the AUDELCO Award for Direction of a Musical for the work he did with “Much Ado About Nothing”

by the way.