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BWW Blog: Highlighting Landmark Moments in Black Theatre History

From Shuffle Along to Hamilton, Black theatre artists are changing the world

BWW Blog: Highlighting Landmark Moments in Black Theatre History

Theatre would not be theatre without the efforts of Black artists, and it's important to learn about their impact on the industry. In honor of Black History Month, here is a timeline of theatre milestones achieved by Black professionals.

1903: In Dahomey

Composed by William Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar, In Dahomey, which stars iconic vaudeville figures Bert Williams and George Walker, is the first all-black musical comedy to play in a major Broadway theater.

1907: The Oyster Man

Popularizing the musical genre of ragtime, this musical comedy makes Ernest Hogan the first African American to both produce and star in a Broadway show.

1916: Rachel

Written by Angelina W. Grimke, Rachel becomes the first play both authored by a Black person and featuring a Black cast to be presented to a mixed audience.

1917: Three Plays for a Negro Theatre

Shortly after the success of Rachel, Playwright Ridgely Torrence's Three Plays for a Negro Theatre becomes the first Broadway play to feature an all black cast.

1921: Shuffle Along

Created entirely by Black theatre artists and Black performers, this revue-musical is a breakthrough for the African-American theatre industry. It plays on Broadway for more than 500 performances, and tours for three years. It is the first show to feature a sophisticated Black love story. After Shuffle Along, nine all-Black shows opened on Broadway between 1921 and 1924.

1925: Appearances

Author Garland Anderson becomes Broadway's first Black playwright.

1950: South Pacific

Creating the iconic role of Bloody Mary in this legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Juanita Hall becomes the first Black performer to receive a Tony Award.

1959: Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry makes history with her play Raisin in the Sun. She becomes the first Black female playwright to have her work featured on Broadway, and the first Black playwright and youngest American to win a New York Critics' Circle Award.

1962: No Strings

Diahann Carol wins the Tony Award for "Best Leading Actress in a Musical" for her portrayal of Barbara in this Richard Rodgers musical, becoming the first Black performer to win in the category of a leading role.

1967: Hello, Dolly!

Three years into the run of this Tony-winning Jerry Herman musical, the cast is replaced by an all-Black ensemble and led by Broadway royalty Pearl Bailey as Dolly Levi. Along with raving reviews, she receives a Special Tony Award the following year.

1969: The Great White Hope

Joining Juaita, Diahann, and Pearl on the list of Tony Award recipients is James Earl Jones. Only this time, Earl Jones wins for "Best Leading Actor in a Play," making him the first Black winner in a non-musical category.

1975: The Wiz

This all-Black spin on The Wizard of Oz is a defining moment in Black Musical Theatre History. Director Geoffrey Holder becomes the first Black Director to win "Best Director of a Musical," as well as the first to win "Best Costume Design in a Musical." The Wiz also wins "Best Musical," "Best Original Score" (Charlie Smalls), "Best Choreography" (George Faison), "Best Featured Actor in a Musical" (Ted Ross), and "Best Featured Actress in a Musical" (Dee Dee Bridgewater).

1984 and 1991: The Tap Dance Kid and Miss Saigon

In 1984, Hinton Battle wins the Tony Award for "Best Featured Actor in a Musical," making him the first Black performer to win two Tony Awards. Seven years later, he wins the same award for his portrayal of John in Miss Saigon, making him the first Black theatre professional with three Tony Awards.

2002: Topdog/Underdog

Playwright Suzi Lori Parks becomes the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Topdog/Underdog.

2002: Thoroughly Modern Millie

Whoopi Goldberg, who produced this Tony-winning musical, becomes the first (and only) Black woman to achieve EGOT status. Goldberg received an Emmy for the Hattie McDaniel documentary Beyond Tara, a Grammy for the recording of her solo Broadway show, and an Oscar for her role in Ghost.

2008: Passing Strange

Singer-songwriter and playwright Stew becomes the first (and only) Black recipient of the Tony Award for "Best Book of a Musical."

2010: Memphis

Two years after a Black artist was finally awarded with the Tony for "Best Book of a Musical," Daryl Waters becomes the first (and only) Black recipient of the "Best Orchestrations" Tony Award.

2014: Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

Broadway star Audra McDonald sets the record for the most Tony-winning performances and becomes the first (and only!) person to win in all four acting categories. McDonald has six Tony Awards for her work in Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, Porgy and Bess, and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill

2016: Hamilton and The Color Purple

For the first time, a Black artist wins in each performance category. The lineup includes The Color Purple's Cynthia Erivo ("Best Leading Actress in a Musical"), and Hamilton stars Leslie Odom Jr. ("Best Leading Actor in a Musical"), Daveed Diggs ("Best Featured Actor in a Musical"), and Renee Elise Goldsberry ("Best Featured Actress in a Musical").

2018: The Iceman Cometh

George C. Wolfe receives another Tony nomination for directing The Iceman Cometh, continuing his reign of "Most Tony-nominated Black Theatre Artist" with 23 total.

2020: Antonyo Awards

Created to shed light on systemic racism in the New York Theatre industry, the Antonyo Awards celebrates Black theatre artists working on and off-Broadway. The genderless acting categories and online voting platforms act as progressive counterpoints to Tony Award operations.

While these accomplishments should always be celebrated, it is important to acknowledge that the theatre industry still has a long way to go. Tony Award categories like "Best Book of a Musical" and "Best Orchestrations" only have one Black winner. And some, like "Best Lighting Design of a Play" and "Best Costume Design of a Play," don't have any. Color-conscious casting and hiring must be further implemented so that we can eliminate under-representation and injustice in our industry.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Joey Tabasco