Throughout its history, Broadway has made leaps and bounds in terms of representation in theatre. While initially beginning as a space harboring solely white male casts, the beloved Broadway stage has since progressed to provide a platform for diversity. Beginning in 1919, African-American actors, playwrites, and directors have provided some of the many barrier-breaking events in theatre history, while creating some of the best performances Broadway has ever seen.
Charles Gilpin is the FIRST black man to star in a Broadway play. Making his debut in Ten Nights in a Barroom, he paved the way for future black actors to be accepted in the Broadway community.
The first major Broadway show featuring an all-black cast, Shuffle Along, opened in 1921 and had a 504 performance run. It became so wildly popular that police had to convert 63rd street in order to ease traffic jams before curtain time!
Juanita Hall (of South Pacific) became the first African-American to receive a Tony Award, while ALSO becoming the first person to ever receive the award for best featured actress in a musical.
After growing up in Detroit, Lloyd Richards moved on to become the director of the Yale School of Drama and Yale Repertory Theatre. in 1959, he became the first African-American to direct a play with the debut of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Check out a video of him discussing the impact of his major feat here!
Purlie swept the Tony awards for both best featured actress (Melba Moore) AND best actor. Cleavon Little became the first black man to win the award for his standout performance.
In addition, Charles Gordon became the first African-American playwrite to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for No Place to be Somebody.
Self-educated and inspired by other black artists, August Wilson wrote ten plays to display life in America for African-Americans, known as The Pittsburgh Cycle. Each play was set in a different decade of the 20th century, and the series premiered in 1982 with Jitney (which portrayed the 1970s, but was only performed in off-Broadway theaters). The last show, Radio Golf (portraying the 1990s), premiered in 2005 but Wilson passed away before seeing the Broadway debut in 2007.
Kicking off the 21st century, Tyrone Giordano starred as “Jim” in the revival of Big River, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although Giordano is deaf, he never let his hearing impairment get in the way of his desire to be a performer. He learned all his lines and lyrics in order to act them out onstage, while another actor spoke and sang them from backstage. Thus, this revival became the first Broadway show to use both deaf and hearing actors.
Gregory Haney made history by playing La Cienega in Bring It On. This character is the first transgendered teenager on Broadway.
The year 2013 breathed new life into Romeo and Juliet, as Condola Rashad and Orlando Bloom played the first interracial Romeo and Juliet pairing. In addition, the show’s theme was expanded as audiences theorized that the famous family feud depicted in the play was also due to racial tensions. This casting decision further implied a new message in the show of true love having no race.
Norm Lewis added to his resume (which included lead roles in Miss Saigon and Les Miserables) by taking on the title role of the phantom in Phantom of the Opera- becoming the first black man to do so.
In addition, Keke Palmer made headlines as she became the first African-American woman to play the title role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Instantly, she became an icon as young children (especially young black girls) and adults alike saw more representation of their own (or other’s) race in a popular Broadway hit.
Taye Diggs became the first African-American man to portray Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch after Daren Criss left the show.
In less than 100 years, influential African-Americans have transformed the Broadway stage (and this timeline is FAR from all-inclusive). The thousands of incredible black performers have shown America how passion, drive, and amazing talent has no race- no boundaries. Within the coming years, Broadway should hope to see even more progress as type-casting based on race will continue to dissolve.
Remember Camp Broadway: no matter the color of your skin, your gender, or ability….YOU can do anything.