Black Theater Year In Review, Part 2

Linda Armstrong | 1/2/2020, midnight
2019 was truly a year of Splendor for Black Theater!

In July Lydia Diamond found herself with a “hit” as her play “Toni Stone,” about the first pro Black woman baseball player was presented by the Roundabout Theatre. Diamond’s play showed that she had done a great deal of research into Toni Stone’s life and she presented the audiences with a portrait of a whole person. A baseball player who wasn’t accepted, had a hard time seeing herself as a feminine woman and had difficulty with having relationships. This play gave people of this generation a chance to see and appreciate all that this boundary breaker had to go through for women to have their roles in professional sports today. The cast of “Toni Stone” hit “homeruns” and featured Black actors including April Matthis, Kenn E. Head, Harvy Blanks, Eric Berryman, Phillip James Brennan, Daniel J. Bryant, Jonathan Burke, Toney Goins, and Ezra Knight. Camille A. Brown choreographed the sports moves and clowning around moves. The play had impeccable direction by Pam MacKinnon. “The Secret Life of Bees” was a very “buzz-worthy” musical with a book by Pulitzer prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Playing at the Linda Gross Theater it was presented by the Atlantic Theater Company and told a story of racism, lies and segregation in the South. This musical had uplifting and extraordinary singing performances you could hear. But, this was no surprise as the mixed cast was full of enormous talents including Tony winner LaChanze, Saycon Sengbloh, Eisa Davis, Anastasia McCleskey, Brett Gray, Elizabeth Teeter, Nathaniel Stampley, Manuel Feliciano, Joe Cassidy, Romelda Teron Benjamin, Vita E. Cleveland, Matt DeAngelis, and Jai’len Christine Li Josey. There was also wonderful choreography by Chris Walker and dazzling direction by Sam Gold. Six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald returned to Broadway, out of her comfort zone, and did a two-character drama with Michael Shannon called “Frankie & Johnny at the Clair de Lune.” A play in which she was completely naked for the entire beginning, but every moment was done in good taste! The story was a romantic drama that delved deep into human relationships. They did a marvelous delivery of this Terrance McNally classic and were directed by Arin Arbus. It played at the Broadhurst Theater.

In August Karimah gave us her play “Imminently Yours,” performed by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theatre 80 St. Marks and directed by Count Stovall. The play tells the interesting story of a society of Black families that live high on a mountain in what look like shacks, but this community has a secret that it is keeping from the eyes and ears of the government. When that secret is revealed the community is devastated. The play was a chance to see theater veteran Dorothi Fox, Arthur French and Edythe Jason on the stage, doing what they do best. The fantastic cast also featured Colette Bryce, Nia Akilah Robinson and Ryan Desaulniers. In “Down To Eartha” Dierdra McDowell not only writes about the life of Eartha Kitt but embodies her as she performs her one-woman show. Presented at the Gene Frankel Theatre, McDowell tells the tragic story of Kitt’s life, not just as a performer, but as an actress and singer and when she spoke out against the U.S. government about the Vietnam War and Pres. Lyndon Johnson had her blacklisted. She shows Kitt as a single mother trying to get work to feed and clothe her daughter. She demonstrated a very connectable side to this movie and TV icon. The play was stunningly directed by Marishka S. Phillips. “SHEnanigans” by Helena D. Lewis was a work she wrote as a tribute to her late mother and a work she performed with her whole heart and soul. The beautiful one-woman show had the audience engaged as Lewis talked about her devastation over her mother’s passing and then told what happened in her life afterwards. She talked about having to take on all the responsibilities her mother had including taking care of her aging father that she didn’t really like at first and the family dog. The production is truly bought to life by large projected photos of her mother, father and the family dog. She even portrayed the dog and conveyed his thoughts. It was touching and delightful. This marvelous work, which was part of Lewis’ healing process after losing her mother suddenly was presented by the Wild Project and Crazy Girl Productions and astonishingly directed by Rome Neal. “Sweet Lorraine” written by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and Adam Mace, and conceived and directed by Maharaj was presented by Rebel Theater Company in association with NAACP Brooklyn Brand Equity in the Arts and Culture Committee and the RAVE Theater Festival. It imagined a meeting between playwright Lorraine Hansberry and writer James Baldwin in her hospital room when she is dying of cancer. It was an amazing play that showed a deep friendship and love that these two creative people had for each other. It starred a marvelous cast—Valisia LeKae and Christopher Augustin. Richard Wright’s “Native Son” got an update with a book by Nambi E. Kelley and was revived by the Acting Company. It looked at the way that Black men were perceived by white society decades ago, as being stupid, criminals and unworthy. The production was given new life at the Duke Theatre and featured an amazing cast that included Galen Ryan Kane, Rebekah Brockman, Jason Bowen, Laura Gragtmans, Katherine Renee Turner, Lorenzo Jackson, Rosalyn Coleman, Anthony Bowden, Henry Jenkinson, and Keshav Moodliar. It was powerfully directed by Seret Scott. Sahr Ngaujah of “FELA” fame is back on Broadway starring in “Moulin Rouge” at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. This musical takes musicals to a new high of excitement and delight. It creates a world where anything goes and Ngaujah is marvelous, along with a great starring cast and ensemble.

September saw new-comer Zawe Ashton starring in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. She starred with Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox in this drama about love and betrayal between a husband and wife and a man by his best friend with his wife. This play was extremely thought-provoking and was poignantly directed by Jamie Lloyd. In “American Moor” playwright/actor Keith Hamilton Cobb created and performed a work about the frustrations and closed doors that older Black actors face when they audition for roles. Even to the point of being told how to be a Black character like Othello in Shakespeare’s classic play by a white director and he shares the reactions of a Black man who is tired of taking this abuse, but also has the common sense to know, what he can do about it. It played at the Cherry Lane Theatre and was mesmerizing. Presented by Red Bull Theater it co-starred Josh Tyson and had terrific direction by Kim Weild. Lilli Cooper, daughter of Tony winner Chuck Cooper talked about her delightful co-starring role as Julie in the hilarious Broadway musical “Tootsie” playing at the Marquis Theater. She is absolutely marvelous in this musical and so grateful for the opportunity. She was also on Broadway and lead the cast in the production of “SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical” where she had played Sandy Cheeks. She is an amazing talent and someone to keep an eye on.

In October, all I can say is having this much fun at the theater seems like it should be against the law. What am I talking about? Going to see “Freestyle Love Supreme” an improv production that is currently playing on Broadway at the Booth Theater. This production is like nothing you can imagine, but it is whatever you image. That’s right, you tell stories or scenarios to the actors on stage and they make them into skits or songs right before your eyes. It is a great masterclass in improv. I recommend it for everyone, but especially to young people that want to get into the business. Conceived by Anthony Veneziale and created by Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale, the production has a mixed race cast that is off-the-charts and includes Utkarsh Ambudkar, Andrew Bancroft, Aneesa Folds, Arthur Lewis, Kaila Mullady, Chris Sullivan and Anthony Veneziale. It is directed by Kail. Every performance has a couple of surprise performers, the night I went they were Wayne Brady and Daveed Diggs, who knows who might be there the night you attend? “The Great Society” is a compelling drama playing at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater that looks at the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. It has an enormous cast that includes African Americans Grantham Coleman in the lead role as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and in featured and ensemble roles Marchant Davis, Ty Jones, Christopher Livingston, Nikkole Salter, Tramell Tillman, Robyn Kerr and LaBen Early. With a book by Robert Schenkkan, it has precise direction by Bill Rauch. When it comes to Black Theater it’s also important to acknowledge the people that make theater happen and have made it their mission to utilize Black actors in non-traditional roles and wherever they see fit. I’m describing the winners of the Broadway Global 2019 Producer of the Year, Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey. They won this honor for their work with their company Front Row Productions and they have been the only Black Lead Broadway producers for 13 years. This dynamic pair has produced all-Black productions of “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “The Trip To Bountiful” and “The Iceman Cometh” with Denzel Washington. Off-Broadway they produced Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed.” They have produced theater on Broadway and are major producers on London’s West End. The pair was honored at the 47th Annual AUDELCO Awards which recognize excellence in Black Theater for their contribution to Black Theater, receiving a Special Pioneer Award. Byrd is actually doing even more for Black Theater, he is the chairman of the Multicultural Taskforce for the Broadway League and as that he works towards ways to make Broadway more accessible to Black audiences. I could go on and on about Byrd and Jones-Harvey, but that’s another article. “Sassy Mamas” by Celeste Bedford Walker, was a delightfully crafted play about older women having relationships with younger men. It was a fun time at the Black Spectrum Theatre in Queens. With splendid direction by Lorna Littleway, it boosted an amazingly talented all-Black cast that included Gha’il Rhodes Benjamin, Travis Whitaker, Marlon Carter, Jo Ann Cleghorne, Niambi Steele and Fulton Hodges.

In November “The New Englanders” by Black playwright Jeff Augustin with direction by Saheem Ali, was presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club and played at the New York City Center. Augustin told the story of a two-Dad, gay couple, one white, one Black, raising their Black daughter in a small New England town and what issues the daughter had. Her issues though were her own and didn’t directly connect with having two Dads. The issues she had and the troubles she got into were based on the identity confusion she had, a confusion that can be shared by teenagers in general. She was scared of not being her own person, but somehow being complacent as she believed her parents to be. She was also very rebellious against authorities like her white female English teacher. The play had a small mixed race cast that gave glorious performances and included Teagle F. Bougere, Kara Young, Javier Munoz, Patrick Breen, Crystal Finn and Adam Langdon. The energy in the theater was unbelievable when I saw “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. This musical has an awesome, engaging story by Katori Hall, focuses on the life and career of music icon Tina Turner and stars a majority Black cast with powerhouse Adrienne Warren in the lead role as Tina. The musical takes you through the list of Turner’s songs and Warren sounds just like her and has the unbridled energy doing the dance moves that Turner is famous for. The superb co-stars include Daniel J. Watts, Dawnn Lewis, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe and Myra Lucretia Taylor. The ensemble is exhilarating to watch, but unfortunately too many people to name. You’ll have to go to tinaonbroadway.com to see the photos and names of all the lovely people. “Reparations” played at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn and it was moving to watch. Written by James Sheldon and directed by Michele Shay, it told the story of Black people looking for reparations, but not for slavery, instead for being the victims of child abuse, one woman by an uncle and a man by his white teacher. This play had shocking moments and a lot of staggering twists and turns, but it left the audience thinking. The mixed cast was absolutely captivating and included Lisa Arrindell, Kamal Bolden, Alexandra Neil and Guy de Villiers. “The Dark Star From Harlem: The Spectacular Rise of Josephine Baker,” a new musical had a book by Glynn Borders and music and lyrics by Mario E. Sprouse. This marvelous musical gave audiences a close-up look at the talent of Josephine Baker, her free spirit and how she was accepted by Europe, while being rejected by the U.S. This production included all of the forbidden, revealing, but beautiful dance and singing numbers she was famous for and they were done in good taste. The mixed race cast was superb in the La Mama production and included Iris Beaumier in the title role, along with James A. Pierce III, Melissa Victor, Zuri Washington, Katelyn Bowman, Kimberlee D. Murray, Chris Bolan, Joe Komara, Jed Peterson, Heather Hurst and Catherine Calloway. There was dazzling direction by Tai Thompson. The late Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf” was brought back to glorious life in a flawless, heart-pounding production at the Public Theater. Leah C. Gardiner directed a cast of extremely talented Black women which included Sasha Allen, Jayme Lawson, Celia Chevalier, Danaya Esperanza, Adrienne C. Moore, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Alexandria Wailes. These ladies verbalized and demonstrated the plight of Black women and the tragedies that some experience, but how despite whatever happens they are able to rebound. 2019 was a year of honoring our own at the 47th Annual Vivian Robinson AUDELCO Awards, where the theme was “the Legacy Continues,” and it did as many Blacks in the industry were recipients of distinct honors. The Grace Jones Lifetime Achievement Award was presented for the first time, in memory of the late president of AUDELCO: it was awarded to Woodie King Jr., founder of New Federal Theatre, a writer, director and producer and to actress, writer, director Barbara Montgomery. Board of Director Awards were presented posthumously to the late playwright Ntozake Shange and to sound designer, playwright, composer, radio drama producer/director and actor—David Wright. Director Kenny Leon was given the AUDELCO for Outstanding Achievement. Composer/lyricist/playwright/librettist/actress/director Micki Grant received the Legacy Award for her enormous span of work. There are so many incredible offerings on Broadway and the Broadway League wants Black people to know that they are very welcome at Broadway shows. They want to encourage Blacks to go to Broadway. To this end the Broadway League has a Multicultural Taskforce and its chairman is Stephen C. Byrd. Yes, this man is doing a lot. Well, the purpose of the taskforce is to encourage Blacks to come and at an event called “Let’s Do Broadway,” Byrd talked about the efforts being made to bring Blacks to Broadway. Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League explained Broadway Bridges, a program that allows High School Students to see a Broadway musical before they graduate. Twenty thousand students participated this year and they are aiming for 70,000 next year. On stage, backstage and in their offices students of color get to participate in internship programs. There was also a fantastic panel with Blacks who have been and currently are on Broadway, along with a costume designer and playwright. In a very candid panel, Phylicia Rashad, Derrick Baskin (“Ain’t Too Proud”), moderator Harriette Cole, actress in Denee Benton (“Hamilton”), costume designer, Paul Tazewell and playwright Lynn Nottage shared their experiences and their process and what being part of the Broadway community has meant for them. Lynn Nottage has created the book for “MJ: The Musical” coming to Broadway in 2020, so you should look out for that. Playwright David Lamb presented his work “The Best Things In Life” at the Improv Asylym and it was an amusing take on the traditional Christmas Carol, but with it updated to today. The story was delightful, the actors entertaining, and they included Mera, Nisarah Lewis, Julian Kingston, Gabriel Hamilton, Nemesis Irizarry and Daniel Hickman. Whenever I hear that an Anna Deavere Smith play is being mounted I’m there. This brilliant, profound, trailblazing writer puts together such tremendous work and usually performs it herself. With this in mind I rushed to the The Pershing Square Signature Theatre when I heard that “Fires In The Mirror,” her play about the Crown Heights incidents of 1991 with the death of Gavin Cato, was being presented. What I saw were her powerful, vividly, honest interviews with people of various backgrounds that shared their thoughts on what had happened, but she wasn’t performing this tour de force. She entrusted her baby with Black male actor Michael Benjamin Washington, and I could clearly see why. He inhabited 24 characters flawlessly and with the most deeply felt passion you could muster. This engaging piece of theater was directed by Saheem Ali.

In December “one in two” presented by the New Group At The Pershing Square Signature Center, written by Donja R. Love, looked at the plight of Black gay men infected with HIV. Love was trying to get across to the public through the absurd that this is an epidemic. The CDC statistics are that one in two Black gay men will be diagnosed as HIV positive. Love wants people to realize that there are men with lives, fears, and families behind those statistics. The production features three actors who change roles with each performance and are simply referred to as Person on the Left; Person in the Middle and Person on the Right. These versatile actors are Jamyl Dobson, Leland Fowler and Edward Mawere. This production leaves one realizing a small part of the agony that these Black gay men are experiencing. These intense actors are stunningly directed by Stevie Walker-Webb.

Looking towards 2020, let me give you a taste of what is coming. The Roundabout Theatre Company will present “A Soldier’s Play” by Charles Fuller and directed by Kenny Leon. It will star David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood. It will also present “Caroline Or Change” starring Sharon D. Clarke. La Mama will present “Reflections of Native Voices” Jan. 7-12, 2020 and “The Life Of Benjamin Banneker,” Jan. 26 and Feb. 2, 2020. Mark your calendars folks, I wrote about the Black Theater preview that has become a yearly event. Well, I have the 411 for when the next one will occur in 2020. AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee) Inc., Project1Voice and Walk Tall Girl Productions in association with Kumble Theater, LIU Brooklyn Campus will produce “The Theater-Makers Second Annual Black Theatre Preview: Winter/Spring Edition.” The FREE event will be a celebration of Black Theater artists working on and Off-Broadway during the 2019/2020 season. It will include conversations with playwrights, actors and designers, performances (live excerpts, film, and video) and a marketplace where productions can offer promotional products, gather email addresses and offer discounts. The location is Kumble Theatre at One University Plaza. There are so many marvelous productions on the way on Broadway. “MJ: The Musical” about Michael Jackson, written by Lynn Nottage will be coming out in 2020. Nottage shared that she focuses on the music icon’s creative process. As I mentioned earlier “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” is “on-fire” with excitement, music, dancing and just a pure fantastic experience! Whatever your pleasure, go enjoy Blacks in Theater for 2020! See you there!

2019 also saw a musical about the Temptations come to Broadway at the Imperial Theatre, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations.” The musical play tells the story of the Temptations according to the prospective of Otis Williams, the founding member of the group. It features a book by playwright Dominique Morisseau. The cast, which is primarily Black, features Derrick Baskin as Otis Williams, Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin, Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendrick, Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin, James Harkness as Paul Williams, and Saint Aubyn as Dennis Edwards. The musical features many well-known and beloved songs like “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” “Cloud Nine,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “I Want a Love I can See,” “My Girl,” “Shout,” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” Sergio Trujillo’s choreography won the musical a 2019 Tony Award. Des McAnuff directs the musical. This is of course a production that is still going strong!