Theatre, the foundation of what television and cinema has become as a result of technology, has had a big head start to drive forward equality. Despite this it’s managed to let down the multitudes of black audiences and on-stage actors who feel underrepresented in its beautiful dramatic art-form. It’s no secret that Broadway, also known as the Great White Way, has been in need of a splash of colour for a long time now, not unlike our very own equally-prestigious West End Theatres in London. The well-renounced American/British theatre houses have been a major part of theatrical history but unfortunately, like most of media, haven’t really noticed black people as any more than shadows.
However, MLK didn’t die for nothing! Theatreland is notoriously white, but now that directors are not only colour-blind casting (the counter argument tends to be “that’s how it originally was”, even when skin colour has little/nothing to do with the plot) but realising that this is what people like to see and people = big bucks.
With this glimmer of hope falling on the darker skins amongst us, here are some musicals that feature African-Americans as more than thugs and trash-takers. These plays could make anyone dance for joy.
Dreamgirls tells the tale of The Dreamettes – later renamed The Dreams, an R&B girl group who battle usurpation, racism and friendship struggles to become big in 1970s America. Effie, the lead singer of the trio, gets upstaged by her fellow band-mate and ex-best friend Deena, leading to tension that greatly dismays third band-member Lorrell. The tension gradually builds up to breaking point and, despite her involvement and passion for the group, Effie gets replaced by Michelle after losing her lead-singer status to Deena, both done on the command of her manager Curtis. If that isn’t a storyline enough, Curtis is the man who Effie consequently discovers has impregnated her as a result of their sexual involvement. Oh… everything I just said? That’s only the beginning.
The original Broadway run (1981-1985) featured iconic African-American actors such as Tony-winning Jennifer Holliday as Effie, Tony-winning Ben Harney as Curtis and Emmy-winning Loretta Devine as Lorrell. The 2006 film adaption wasn’t any less prestigious: it stars Tony-winning Anika Noni Rose, Academy Award-winning Jamie Foxx; Golden Globe-winning Eddie Murphy, Grammy-winning Jennifer Hudson (who won the award because of her role in the film) and, well, this other person who goes by the name of Beyoncé (who’s she?? I hear you cry. I know not, dear reader. I know not.)
Now, finally, the musical is coming to London’s West End – as announced a full 30 years after its initial finale on Broadway. Its rights were acquired by the influential female theatre producer Sonia Friedman, who we also owe tonnes of West End and Broadway production credits to. Girl power and black power all around the table, it seems!
The Colour Purple
The Colour Purple surrounds Cecile, a black girl navigating through life in 1930s Confederate States. Her narration begins when she’s fourteen and impregnated, for the second time, by her step-father. When both her children are adopted against her will, Cecile reluctantly marries Mister in her little sister Nettie’s place in an attempt to uphold Nettie’s dream of becoming a teacher. Constantly battered physically and emotionally, Cecile gets used to life without her sister and Mister becoming her abuser in her step father’s place. However, all this changes when she meets Mister’s mistress Shug: the pair fall in love and Shug encourages her to defy Mister and stand up for herself, as well as get re-connected with her long lost sister Nettie.
Strong themes throughout the play (which is based on a phenomenal book of the same name by Alice Walker) are the sexual violence; internalised oppression and the racial/gender disparity that feminism so passionately fights. However, the circumstances are contradicted by themes of sisterhood; perseverance and endurance, made merrier with Shug and Cecile’s same-sex relationship. Happy endings, as could be considered happy in such a world, do come about – but not in ways you’d expect. That’s what makes the play so important: survival never takes the place of love, because love lasts the toughest situations.
The Colour Purple premièred in Atlanta in 2005. In the 2007 the play, featuring Jeannette Bayardelle as Cecile; ex-Destiny’s child singer Michelle Williams as Shug and Ovation-winner LaToya London as Nettie, toured Chicago and brought in $1million every week. LaChanze, who played Cecile in its 2006 run, won a Tony for her performance and earlier this year producers – including Oprah Winfrey – announced that there would be a Broadway revival in the fall starring Jennifer Hudson as Celie. The London 2013 version didn’t do too shabby either: despite its limited release it sold numerous seats and received rave reviews – including The Guardian’s, which said crowds’ reactions were “roars of foot-stamping approval”. Pretty good, no?
All The Way
Taking place moments after the assassination of J.F. Kennedy, this theatrical production is about the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by JFK’s popular successor Lyndon B. Johnson. The Civil Rights Act, which was to prevent the discrimination of a person due to race, gender or religion, was deeply opposed by Southern congressmen. But, well, Johnson did have one man on his side: his name was Martin Luther King. MLK himself had been dealing with pretty violent opposition of his peaceful protests (what losers) and supported the legislation as a step forward against racism.
Never has a play about historical politics, eg possibly one of the most boring topics anything could be about, been as amazing as All the Way. Although it largely surrounds the Civil Rights legislation, its moralities question the intersection between politics and power. It was first performed in 2012 to rave reviews, gaining its Broadway stage in 2014.
The play’s name is based on Lyndon Baines Johnson’s campaign motto “all the way with LBJ”. It certainly went all the way, winning the 68th Tony for Best Play; the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New Play and the 2014 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
In Dahomey was the first ever full-length play to be written and acted by African-Americans on a Broadway stage, and boy it isn’t disappointing. This go-happy musical full of singing; dancing and comedy tells of a group of Africans-Americans who, upon discovering a pot of gold, move to Africa to become the rulers of a small nation called Dahomey, a kingdom which would have been based somewhere within the borders of present-day Benin.
In Dahomey was first acted on stage in 1903 Broadway and paid a visit to London’s Shafesbury Theatre the same year. It starred acclaimed comedian Bert Williams, who attracted crowds due to his energetic charisma despite the racial inequality of the late 1800s slash early 1900s. Williams was the real founding father of African-American comedy, not one of those “comedians” that either a) joke about being thugs and not dating women darker than them, disrespecting #BlackLivesMatter movements and their female equals simultaneously, or b) act like they are genuine and innocently humorous but turn out to be serial sexual assaulters cough cough Cosby (ß if you say his name loud enough and listen hard enough you may hear me go “uGH” really loudly and eye-roll).
The music in the play was ragtime, a genre known for its ragged rhythm and the enthusiastic dancing it provokes. That, combined with the ridiculous storyline and the hilarious humour sustained throughout the stage play, makes In Dahomey an antique in Broadway’s Black history to be proud of.
Cabin in the Sky
Redemption is the strongest theme of Cabin in the Sky. A man called Little Joe is apparently killed due to his gambling debts by the men he owes money to. Due to the sorrow he’s caused, including to his loving wife Petuina, the angelic powers consider him worthy of Hell. However, thanks to God’s love, Little Joe gets an additional six months to live a life worthy of entering Heaven. What does he do, knowing he could get eternal bliss if he brushes up his act for half a year? Mess up. Typical.
Lucifer Junior (Satan’s son), determined to drag Lil’ Joe to hell (what a lovely chap), chucks a hot gold-digger and loads of money in Joe’s way so to coax him into Hell. This causes marital discord between Joey-boy and his Petuina. He eventually abandons his true love for Georgia the gold-digger, and they experience a life of hedonistic pleasure, much to Lucifer Jr.’s delight and God and Petunia’s sorrow. Just when you think Little Joe is lost forever, and Petuina will be unjustly left heartbroken, you learn that it was aaaaalllll just a dream and the bullet Joe got hit with by his creditors didn’t kill Joe but put him in a coma. Now awake and reformed for real, he resists sin and becomes a better man. Yaaaaay!
Religious or not, you can’t deny the importance of this musical. Changing your ways in the face of temptation – even if it’s less gambling and more how-long-can-I-pretend-I-have-no-homework, is hard to do. The principal African-American cast, despite one being a gambler; another a mini-devil, one an abandoned wife and the last a gold-digging bitch, are all treated with a lot of dignity and depth. It was made into a movie in 1940 – a time where Southern cinemas refused to show movies with prominent black actors for no logical reason, yet still earned an Oscar and Satellite nomination.
A Raisin in the Sky/Raisin
A Raisin in the Sky is a line from a black-pride poem called A Dream Deferred by black poet, writer and activist Langston Hughes. If that wasn’t a good enough start (seriously, check out Hughes. He’s awesome) the play is all about the Youngers, a black family living in Chicago battling inner and outer attacks against their black pride. The 1959 theatre version was so great it was made into a musical shortened to Raisin in 1973.
Struggling to deal with their father/husband’s recent death and their poverty, the Youngers try to invest in profitable businesses and move into a cheaper home which happens to be in white neighbourhood– but even attempting to live the “American Dream” turns their lives into a nightmare.
The ethics at play question the importance of acknowledging black heritage and white privilege; respecting one’s African culture and refusing to be diminished by people “telling them they weren’t fit to walk the same earth as them”, as Lena (Mama) says so perfectly. This play was also made in protest of discrimination in granting housing to tenants and contributed to the conversation that brought around the Fair Housing Act in 1968.
A Raisin in the Sky was considered a risky investment because the cast were all African-American (excluding one minor Caucasian character), though of course no-one would have blinked an eye if there were only white people. However, despite needing over a year to raise production costs, the play’s tour did so well that it was announced by The New York Drama Critics’ Circle as the best play of 1959 and the musical adaption won the 1974 Tony for the best musical. Whoop!