The African-American actors and actresses whose names have shone brightly on Broadway marquees earned their place in history not only through hard work, perseverance, and talent, but also because of the legacy left by those who came before them. Like the doors of many professions, those of the theater world were shut to minorities for decades. While the Civil War may have freed the slaves, it was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that the playing field began to level. In this remarkable book, theater producer and historian Stewart F. Lane uses words and pictures to capture this tumultuous century and to highlight the rocky road that black actors have travelled to reach recognition on the Great White Way.
After the Civil War, the popularity of the minstrel shows grew by leaps and bounds throughout the country. African Americans were portrayed by whites, who would entertain audiences in black face. While the depiction of blacks was highly demeaning, it opened the door to African-American performers, and by the late 1800s, a number of them were playing to full houses. By the 1920s, the Jazz Age was in full swing, allowing black musicians and composers to reach wider audiences. And in the thirties, musicals such as George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Eubie Blake’s Swing It opened the door a little wider.
As the years passed, black performers continued to gain ground. In the 1940s, Broadway productions of Cabin in the Sky, Carmen Jones, and St. Louis Woman enabled African Americans to demonstrate a fuller range of talents, and Paul Robeson reached national prominence in his awarding-winning portrayal of Othello. By the 1950s and ’60s, more black actors—including Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Sidney Poitier—had found their voices on stage, and black playwrights and directors had begun to make their marks.
Black Broadway provides an entertaining, poignant history of a Broadway of which few are aware. By focusing a spotlight on both performers long forgotten and on those whom we still hold dear, this unique book offers a story well worth telling.
“Filled with black-and-white and color photos and illustrations, this richly informative book by six-time Tony Award-winning Broadway producer Lane honors the legacy of determined African-American performers and ground-breaking productions . . . With photo stills and original theater-bill cover art, this is a wonderful, insightful history of black theater.” —Publishers Weekly
“For African Americans, the stage has held as much challenge, struggle, and triumph as other aspects of American life and culture. In this wonderfully illustrated and researched book, Tony Award-winning producer Lane chronicles the evolution of black theater from the 1700s to today. It is a history of finding creative expression in the midst of social constraints and massive cultural and political changes . . . [Black Broadway] details the efforts of black Americans to carve out a place for themselves . . . Lane profiles an assortment of black actors, composers, lyricists, and playwrights who brought the African American experience alive in the theater.” —Booklist
“The history of the participation of African Americans on the Broadway stage as actors, directors, producers, composers, and playwrights is presented in this handsomely illustrated volume . . . [author Stewart] Lane gives an impressive overview with rare production stills, playbills, and posters making his study an essential reference work . . . Of interest to students is the time line of African American history running at the bottom of each page and providing valuable social and cultural context . . . [t]his volume’s superior presentation of visual theatrical elements make it essential for any theater collection.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“A beautiful, 275-page, full-color coffee table book, Black Broadway juxtaposes the history of Black theater from the nineteenth century to today with the general history of African Americans . . . the book is a welcome addition to any library . . . Black Broadway is a great introduction to a broad range of people and plays, and it's hard to imagine a reader not being inspired to seek out the scripts, albums, and films of at least a few of the titles and performers mentioned.” —TalkinBroadway
"Loaded with pictures, playbill reproductions, advertisements, and drawings, Black Broadway is a theatre-goer's delight . . . in addition to a rich narrative on equality for African Americans on Broadway (and off), author Stewart F. Lane includes a running timeline of national and world history to put the main body of this book into perspective." —The Bookworm Sez
"The book of all books. Recently, there has been a serious buzz about Black Broadway and it’s all due to a new book called Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way. As soon as I saw it, my eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. It’s just as glorious as you might imagine. Order your copy of the book today." —Andrew Shade, BroadwayBlack.com
“The book is so valuable because we are reminded of our rich wonderful history as African-American theater artists. To have that documented is good for me as a theater practitioner, and certainly good for young people.” —Sheldon Epps, director
“You can’t put this book down. It’s a wonderful book. It's a book that lets young people know how (Black) theater began.” —Leslie Uggams, Tony Award-winning actress
“A fascinating cavalcade. Some 300 photographs, many-never-before-published, are lavished on this book in its celebration to the stage contributions of African-American playwrights, songwriters, directors and designers . . . the author is a thorough and exacting historian.” —Harry Haun, Playbill
“A beautifully designed and clearly written coffee-table book by Broadway producer and theatre owner Stewart F. Lane. . . . Black Broadway is one of few books about Broadway that not only spends quality time talking about Broadway shows and show people that date after 1990—it actually sounds optimistic about the future of the Great White Way.” —Jonathan Mandell, American Theatre
“If you want a great book . . . if you really love the theatre . . . get Stewart Lane’s new book Black Broadway. . . . A great book by one of the great Broadway producers. Get it! Read it! . . . It's wonderful.” —Mark Simone, WOR-AM Radio
“I need to get that book!” —Sade Baderinwa, Eyewitness News, WABC-TV
“An absolutely beautiful book! Thorough, interesting, the book does a really good job of reminding people of where we are and where we are headed.” —WABC-TV
“An informative . . . well focused . . . and beautifully illustrated book. The time is more than ripe for a chronicle of Black Broadway.” —Linda Winer, Newsday
“Wonderful. You must get this book if you are a theatre lover. I am encouraging everyone looking to pick up something fabulous to read this, another perspective to theatre history . . . a fantastic, comprehensive book and a great introduction for anyone with an interest in theatre. A great book. Beautiful. Very cool.” —Keith Price, SiriusXM Radio
“This totemic, unusually comprehensive history of Black Broadway begins incredibly in the colonial times with the ‘amazing’ early Black countenances to the Suzan-Lori Parks’ and August Wilsons of the contemporary stage and the recent all-Black versions of works by playwrights like Tennessee Williams.” —Center on the Aisle
“You’ve got to get this book. This is what it’s all about. [Black Broadway] is an accomplishment, and to be in these pages is truly a high honor. Thank you, Stewart.” —Ben Vereen
“This is a book to have not only to read and enjoy, but this is a keeper. This is the kind of thing you keep in your home and go back to. It is a hugely important book that’s terribly entertaining and I hope it becomes something that is even taught going forward.” —Peter LeDonne, 970AM The Answer
“Black Broadway provides an entertaining, poignant history of a Broadway of which few are aware. . . . This unique book offers a story well worth telling.” —BroadwayWorld
“Uniquely illustrated with over 300 dynamic photographs (many of which have never been published to date), Black Broadway chronicles the journey of black theatre in America. Lane offers a detailed account from Minstrel Shows to Vaudeville, from the Jazz Age to the Golden Age of the American Musical, through the dramas inspired by the Civil Rights Movement to the present day Broadway.” —Audrey Bernard, New York Beacon News
“Read Black Broadway. A brisk, fascinating overview (with) hundreds of rare and revealing photographs.” —Jesse Green, New York Magazine
“An insider’s look at Broadway in a book filled with more than 300 photos. For anyone who loves Broadway, this book belongs in their library. This is great history from minstrel shows to vaudeville, from the jazz age to the golden age of the American musical. This is not just black history, but American history.” —Alan Caruba, Bookviews (“Monthly Picks”)
“Loaded with pictures, playbill reproductions, advertisements, and drawings, Black Broadway is a theatre-goer's delight . . . in addition to a rich narrative on equality for African Americans on Broadway (and off), author Stewart F. Lane includes a running timeline of national and world history to put the main body of this book into perspective.” —TheBookwormSez (nationally syndicated book reviewer)
“[An] admirably researched and beautifully illustrated theatrical history both on the specific Broadway shows and on the great theatrical talents that best define the contributions that black performers and authors have made to the American theater. . . . an excellent volume . . . From first chapter to last, Lane’s love for the theater shines through. . . . Black Broadway is a wonderful book. Its coffee table proportions allow it to be lushly illustrated with oversized historic photographs, and its heft indicates just how much history it contains, how many tales of the men and women who brought their genius to the center of the Broadway stage that the author, Stewart F. Lane, has to offer.” —New York Journal of Books
In 1821, Alexander Brown, a free black, took a bold course of action. Using money he had earned as a ship’s steward, Brown founded the African Grove Theater, the first known theater established by and for African Americans in New York City. Finally, people of color were able to perform in plays of their own choosing. Finally, they were able to attend dramatic performances.
Because of the intense racism of the time, the African Grove had to move frequently from one area of the city to another, and in 1923, it was forced to close. But an important first step had been taken. Black people had, for a brief time, taken the stage. Their history in the American theater had begun.
Through text and photos, Black Broadway tells the story of the long road that people of color have taken from the first tentative productions at the African Grove to the grand stages of Broadway. Chapter 1 discusses the birth of American theater and examines how black people began to make their way in the field of entertainment. It looks at the era of the minstrel show, which, while demeaning to blacks, gave them the opportunity to ply their trade and develop their skills as performers. It also introduces the talented African-American composers, writers, and actors who produced the first black musicals to grace the stages of Manhattan.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, New York City received a flood of southern blacks in search of greater social and economic equality. Although these immigrants did not find the equal opportunities they sought, they did discover a growing metropolis that boasted not only a newly established theater district but also a popular form of entertainment known as vaudeville. Chapter 2 first explores the important role that African-American entertainers played in vaudeville. It then looks at turn-of-the-century African-American musicals and shares the initial attempts made by the black community to produce drama that represented their experience in America.
For most of the nation, the 1920s was a time of economic prosperity and high spirits. For African Americans, it also marked the birth of a social and artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Chapter 3 discusses this blossoming of black culture and looks at the groundbreaking dramas and musicals that enabled people of color to play their part on the Broadway stage during the Roaring Twenties.
Although the Great Depression had a devastating effect on all aspects of American life, including entertainment, New York continued to offer productions throughout this bleak period of our history. Chapter 4 provides a window to the theater of the time. It looks at a number of significant dramas, including a captivating all-black production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was funded by the Federal Government’s Negro Theater Project. It also explores musicals that stirred controversy, inspired praise, and launched the careers of great black performers.
By the 1950s, Americans had largely bounced back from both the Depression and World War II, and the country’s rising spirits were reflected in its theater. Chapter 5 first presents an array of fabulous musicals performed by great African-American actors and actresses. It then looks at the dramas of the fifties, including a landmark production that not only dealt with serious racial issues but also demonstrated that plays written by black artists could captivate theatergoers of all races.
Chapter 6 focuses on the turbulent sixties—a time of enormous social change in America and tremendous experimentation in the world of the theater. Long-standing conventions were being questioned, old barriers were being torn down, and African-American performers were being featured in greater numbers than ever before. This chapter explores the noteworthy productions born of this unique period of history.
Despite economic recession, the seventies and eighties would produce an astounding variety of musicals, including all-black revivals of traditionally white plays and revues that honored legendary African-American songwriters. Unfortunately, Broadway was far less hospitable to black dramas, but off-Broadway filled the gap, with the Public Theater and other venues offering opportunities to both black writers and black performers. This period also saw the emergence of August Wilson, an African-American playwright who would chronicle black history through a series of brilliant plays. In Chapter 7, you’ll learn of both the struggles and the triumphs of these decades.
The 1990s began with a much-needed revitalization of the theater district. Now theatergoers could better enjoy the fruits of Broadway, including a host of plays that featured African-American performers. As the nineties gave birth to a new millennium, a quiet revolution began to take place as African-American producers joined the theater community. Black playwrights, composers, and performers had been part of the Great White Way for many years, but black producers had been few and far between. As this began to change, new opportunities would arise for actors of color, and—just as important—African-American audiences would take an increasing interest in what Broadway had to offer.
Change comes slowly and often painfully in any area of society. For two centuries, African Americans struggled to become part of Broadway, and while the fight continues, many battles have been won and significant changes have been made. It is my hope that Black Broadway serves as a guide to the many people who have blazed a trail to the Great White Way and made it more accessible to everyone—black and white—who seeks to entertain and enlighten us through the performing arts.