The last few seasons in New York legit theater has seen a large number of African American actors and playwrights as well as productions either based on racially-specific source material or presenting black actors in non-traditional (read: not all white) casting. There’s even a bit of hiphop culture building brands on the Broadway stage, with Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith among the producing team of the hit show and multi-Tony nominee Fela.
There’ve always been hit black shows on Broadway—the ones created by African-Americans, like The Wiz and such reviews as Bubbling Brown Sugar, as well as the all-black shows like Dreamgirls, written by white composers or created by white showmen who appreciated the musical brilliance of a people who have almost always been allowed to sing and dance their way into the public consciousness. But as for drama? It’s been 50 years since Lorraine Hansberry’s ceiling- (and ground-) breaking A Raisin in the Sun, and though there’ve been a few lucky and talented African American playwrights represented with Broadway productions since then, only August Wilson had a sustained career there of late (not that playwrights of any race—Mamet? Neil Simon? Shakespeare?—can be said to have sustained Broadway careers these days!) Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ Top Dog/Underdog, in fact, was the only new African American play presented on Broadway in the past 10 years. Even then, roles by Adriane Lenox, for example, in Doubt, or the sometime arrival of a Denzel Washington or James Earl Jones sometimes kept black faces in the Broadway mix.
Now, after recent dramatic—and financially successful—seasons have showcased all-black renderings of On Golden Pond and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Color Purple adaptation, Diddy’s revival of A Raisin in the Sun, David Mamet’s fiery Race, Denzel back in an August Wilson revival—producers have noticed that when black faces appear on Broadway, black wallets seem to open up for them.
And perhaps that’s why there’s news about Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry bringing their Hollywood stardom to Broadway (like Denzel and Julia and Hugh and Nicole before them) in a production of Katori Hall’s celebrated new play The Mountaintop next season. There are also rumors abounding that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith may be coming to Broadway as Stanley and Stella in an Emily Mann-directed (!) revivial of A Streetcar Named Desire, produced by Stephen Byrd, who also produced the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof revival with James Earl Jones and Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose a coupla seasons back. (I’d argue that Nicki Micheaux might make a more grounded and nuanced Stella, but that’s just me.) And I really wonder who they’d cast as Blanche DuBois…any suggestions? (Angela Bassett? Viola Davis? Audra McDonald?) All this news comes on the heels of the announcement that James Earl Jones will join Vanessa Redgrave in the upcoming Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy (its first Broadway production!) And people are saying that Patti LaBelle may step into the shoes of Tony nominee Liliias White as Fela’s mother when White takes a break to tour her own show. Suzan-Lori Parks is also the book writer of an upcoming new Broadway musical detailing the life and times of superstar Ray Charles.
Black may be beautiful but apparently it’s pretty profitable too.