Black plays are knocking on Broadway’s door. Will it open?  

  • >>Michael Paulson, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-07-30 15:33:13 BdST

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Larry Owens, centre, in “A Strange Loop” at Playwrights Horizons in New York, May 23, 2019. The New York Times

The slate of shows scheduled to be staged on Broadway next spring — or whenever large-scale indoor theatre is allowed to resume in New York — includes just three with Black writers. All of them are jukebox musicals.

But what if theatre owners and operators, mindful of this year’s roiling reconsideration of racial injustice, wanted to present more work by Black artists?

Interviews with artists and producers suggest that there are more than a dozen plays and musicals with Black writers circling Broadway — meaning, in most cases, that the shows have been written, have had promising productions elsewhere, and have support from commercial producers or non-profit presenters.

But bringing these shows to Broadway would mean making room for producers and artists who often have less experience in commercial theatre than the powerful industry regulars who most often get theatres.

“My hope is that when theatre reopens, Broadway is going to look very different than it did when it closed in March,” said Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose own path to Broadway was difficult — her first Pulitzer winner, “Ruined,” famously never transferred despite several extensions off-Broadway; she finally arrived in 2017 with “Sweat,” and she is now working on three shows with Broadway aspirations.

“It would be very exciting for me to return to a space that felt more like the world that I want to live in,” she said, “and less like the world that I’m living in now.”

Three-quarters of the 41 Broadway theatres are controlled by the Shubert, Nederlander and Jujamcyn organisations. To present a show on Broadway, producers generally must rent a theatre and agree to share box office revenue with one of the landlords; over the past few years, availability has been limited because Broadway has been booming, but industry leaders expect that to change next year, given the uncertainty over the pandemic.

The Shuberts, who have the most playhouses, plan to return with a diverse slate of shows. “We always have booked, and always will be booking, plays with Black writers and Black directors and Black subject matters,” said Robert E Wankel, the chairman and chief executive of the Shubert Organization.

Among the shows seeking theatres when Broadway opens next spring: a well-received revival of Ntozake Shange’s classic choreopoem, “For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” as well as a revival of Charles Randolph-Wright’s “Blue” and a new play, “Thoughts of a Coloured Man,” by Keenan Scott II.

“I think it would kill on Broadway,” Stephanie Ybarra, the artistic director of Baltimore Centre Stage, said of “Thoughts of a Coloured Man,” which was co-commissioned by the Baltimore theatre and Syracuse Stage and follows seven Black men through a day in the Brooklyn neighbourhood Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Several musicals are poised as well. The most obvious is “A Strange Loop,” by Michael R Jackson, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama after an off-Broadway run. But that show, which the Pulitzers called “a meditation on universal human fears and insecurities,” is not headed directly to Broadway.

Its commercial producer, Barbara Whitman, tried unsuccessfully to get a Broadway house last year; when she was unable to land a theatre, she committed to a second non-profit run — delayed by the pandemic but now expected to take place next summer, at Woolly Mammoth in Washington — and is planning then to try again in New York.

Two musicals with Black writers are hoping for theatres next spring: “Born for This,” about the life and career of gospel singer BeBe Winans, and “Paradise Square,” about Irish-Black relations in 19th-century New York.

“Born for This,” which has already had productions in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, is being produced by Ron Gillyard, a music executive; “Paradise Square,” which had a production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, includes Marcus Gardley among its book writers, and is led by the storied Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky, who is seeking to make a comeback after serving time in prison for fraud.

“The death of any industry is saying, ‘But we’ve done it this way,’” said Gillyard, who has brought on a longtime theatre industry player, Jenny Gersten, to help him navigate Broadway. “Give us a chance.”

Nonprofit theatres control six of the 41 Broadway houses, and two of them have plays by Black writers planned for 2021-22.

The Roundabout Theatre Company has announced that it will stage a production of “Trouble in Mind,” a 1955 play by Alice Childress that is in part about racism in theatre, that winter. The Roundabout artistic director, Todd Haimes, said the show is the result of a concerted effort to explore less well-known classics by artists of colour. “It’s an extraordinary play,” he said. “And it’s not an undiscovered masterpiece — it’s a semi-discovered masterpiece that never got its due because people were afraid of it.”

Second Stage Theatre plans in the fall of 2021 to stage a new comedic play by Nottage about a sandwich shop that employs the formerly incarcerated; the play had a production last summer at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis with the title “Floyd’s,” but Nottage is planning to rename it so audiences don’t think it’s about George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed in police custody earlier this year.

A more diverse Broadway is a priority for theatre artists for very basic reasons — say what you will about Broadway, but it is the segment of the theatrical landscape where artists make the best salaries, and it not only boosts the careers of those who work there, but it also reliably increases the longevity and reach of their work.

Playwright Jocelyn Bioh had an off-Broadway and regional hit with “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.” She is now writing the book for a new Afrobeat musical, “Goddess,” which is adapted from a Kenyan myth and slated to have an initial production at Berkeley Rep, supported by a commercial producer, Christine Schwarzman, who wants to bring it to Broadway.

“I don’t know how to solve the diversity issue on Broadway,” Bioh said, “other than calling attention to it, and cultivating a generation of producers who are not afraid.”

The three jukebox musicals with Black writers already expected next year include two that opened in 2019 and were paused by the pandemic: “Ain’t Too Proud,” about the Temptations, with a book by Dominique Morisseau, and “Tina,” about Tina Turner, with a book by Katori Hall. The newcomer is “MJ,” about Michael Jackson, which has a book by Nottage and is aiming to open next April.

Each of those musicals is, to a degree, presold based on a popular song catalogue. But for plays in today’s Broadway economy, marquee casting often calls the shots.

For example: Producer Robyn Goodman is looking to bring Cheryl L West’s “Jar the Floor,” a 1991 play about four generations of Black women, to Broadway, but said, “for Broadway you have to have a star or two, and we were close to that, but now nobody knows their schedule, and we just have to wait a couple months until people start planning.”

“Blue,” a 2000 play by Charles Randolph-Wright about a successful family of funeral home operators, is being produced by Brian Moreland, who is also producing “Thoughts of a Coloured Man.”

Moreland tried to get a Broadway theatre for “Blue,” directed by Phylicia Rashad, co-produced by John Legend, and starring Leslie Uggams and Lynn Whitfield, before the pandemic. When he couldn’t, he booked it into the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, which is not a Broadway venue (although there is discussion about reconsidering that).

Sensing that the climate is shifting, he is again hopeful. “If they could shake loose a Broadway house,” he said, “we would take it.”

Ron Simons, the lead producer of “For Coloured Girls,” has partnered with a veteran Broadway producer, Nelle Nugent, hoping that her experience will help the show win a theatre. The show, which first opened on Broadway in 1976, was revived at the Public Theatre last year. Camille A. Brown, the choreographer, will also direct on Broadway, succeeding Leah C Gardiner, who directed the production downtown.

There are producers hoping for Broadway runs of several other shows with Black writers working their way through nonprofit theaters, including the plays “Pass Over,” a charged riff on “Waiting for Godot” by Antoinette Nwandu and “Toni Stone,” about a female Negro leagues baseball player, by Lydia Diamond, as well as the musical “Gun & Powder,” by Angelica Chéri and Ross Baum, about a pair of Black twin sisters who passed as white in the 19th century and became bank-robbing outlaws.

Even earlier in the developmental process is “Dreaming Zenzile,” about Miriam Makeba, written and performed by Somi Kakoma with Mara Isaacs of “Hadestown” attached as a producer; the show is being developed in association with the National Black Theatre, and a first production is expected at the Repertory Theatre of St Louis.

A few projects have powerhouse producers behind them. Disney Theatrical Productions, the biggest company producing on Broadway, is working on a musical adaptation of “Hidden Figures,” which it has been exploring since 2018 with film critic Elvis Mitchell as creative consultant. And Scott Rudin, the prolific independent producer, wants to revive August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” and is also considering a commercial production of “The Black Clown,” a musical adapted by Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter from a Langston Hughes poem.

Some of the Broadway newcomers bring experience from other sectors of the entertainment industry. Film producer Lauren Shuler Donner (“X-Men”) is shepherding Nottage’s stage adaptation of “The Secret Life of Bees,” which is likely to have a second nonprofit production before attempting a commercial run.

And film and television producer Lee Daniels (“Precious”) is ready to bring Jordan E Cooper’s “Ain’t No Mo’” to Broadway.

“Resistance is an understatement,” Daniels said of the reaction when he began talking with Broadway producers about the show, a no-holds-barred comic fantasia, first staged at the Public Theatre, which imagines a moment in which the American government offers to relocate Black Americans to Africa. “They looked at me like I had four heads.”

Daniels, collaborating with the British power producer Sonia Friedman, said he still hopes to bring it to Broadway after the pandemic eases. “It’s the epicentre of New York City,” he said, “and we should exist in the middle of New York City.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company