Black actors on Broadway have a long legacy of being activists for social change. Paul Robeson was famously quoted as saying, “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” The tradition of Black actors on Broadway using their talent and name recognition in order to advance a variety of causes, particularly issues that deal with civil rights, has carried out for almost as long as Broadway has existed.
Perhaps most prominently, Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis were civil rights activists. Known for her work with the American Negro Theatre and roles in “Do the Right Thing” and “American Gangster,” Dee was a member of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the NAACP, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Notably, she emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Her husband, Davis, was nominated for two Tony Awards; in 1958 as Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Musical) for Jamaica, and in 1970 as co-author of the book for Best Musical nominee, Purlie. Davis delivered Malcolm X’s eulogy, which can be heard at the end of the film “Malcolm X,” and also gave a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the day after his assassination, at a memorial in New York’s Central Park.
Current Broadway stars have continued this dedication to activism. In July 2014, over 100 members of the Broadway community came together to send a message about police violence and the killing of Eric Garner. Nik Walker (Motown, Peter and the Starcatcher) participated in the Times Square performance and said, “As artists, it’s very easy to blind ourselves to the issues plaguing our world today. This meeting won’t be to take a side in the Ferguson case. We just want to promote a respectful and productive conversation, so that events like this are never forgotten…and always learned from.”
Daniel J. Watts (After Midnight, Motown, Memphis, In The Heights) also used his talent to spotlight the Ferguson community, Michael Brown, and other African Americans who have been affected by police brutality. In November 2014, Watts gave spoken word performances in Times Square in order to open a dialogue using his platform to talk about a variety of social issues. More recently, this past May, Watts along with Wilkie Ferguson (Motown, Porgy n’ Bess and Post Modern Jukebox), and Nicholas Christopher (Motown and Whorl Inside A Loop), released their song, “Another One,” which riffs off of Queen’s 1980 hit, “Another One Bites The Dust.” Watts recites poetry for the track, Christopher provides backing guitar, and Ferguson produced the tracks and added vocals.
These actors, along with countless others who have used their celebrity to provide awareness about social issues, are to be applauded for their work. Without this spotlight, many issues would just be a brief flash on the evening news. Each time a person with name recognition attaches themselves to an issue, the more attention that cause receives. Often, the Arts can be the bridge to open someone’s eyes. As Watts eloquently said, “Art is the way for us to connect. Art has the power to overcome obstacles.”
Isaiah Johnson Joins Reading of “Reginald”
Isaiah Johnson is set to lead a reading of Reginald: From Baltimore to Billionaire, which is based on the life of Reginald F. Lewis.
In case you missed this day in history class, Reginald F. Lewis is the first Black billionaire. He rose to affluence in the ’80s and died at the age of 50. Over his 5 decades of life, Reginald attended Harvard Law and achieved his status through his corporate acquisitions. He left his legacy through philanthropic efforts, donating millions of dollars each year to a number of institutions, from homeless shelters to neighborhood churches.
Written by Kevin Ray Johnson, Reginald takes us on a journey from childhood to billionaire status, and the struggles of life he faced in between. Isaiah joins the cast as Reginald F. Lewis. Lora Nicolas will play Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the wife of Reginald F. Lewis. The rest of the cast includes: Jessica Frances Dukes (Booty Candy at Playwrights Horizons), Savannah Frazier (Amazing Grace), Troy Hopper, Matt Welsh, Joe Sergio, Emily Bailey and Timothy-Michael Chastain.
The reading will be held Monday August 15th, 7:00 pm at Shetler Studios Penthouse 2.
Johnson is currently wondering how a man can do good, when all he knows is bad, under “Celie’s Curse” as Mister in the Tony-winning best revival of The Color Purple. Before The Color Purple, Johnson was seen in The Winter’s Tale, Peter and The Starcatcher, and The Merchant of Venice as Prince of Morocco.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe Sets Broadway Return
The longest-running musical revue to play Broadway is making a triumphant return this summer as producers announced the comeback of hit revue Smokey Joe’s Cafe.
The Jukebox musical that garnered Tony award nominations for Broadway Black stars Victor Trent Cook, B.J. Crosby and the illustrious Brenda Braxton, is set for a revival, with rehearsals starting around the end of May, according to an Actors Equity audition posting. Previews are scheduled for July 19
Original producers Richard Frankel, Steve Baruch, Tom Viertel and Marc Routh are joining original cast Tony-nominated director Jerry Zaks to revive the hit revue. The show features songs by writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, including fan favorites “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “I’m a Woman,” and “On Broadway.” After Midnight Choreographer,Warren Carlyle, has also signed on, along with musical direction by Sonny Paladino.
Smokey Joe’s opened on Broadway March 2, 1995 and despite harsh critical reviews, had substantial commercial success. The revue earned five Tony award nominations in 1995 including Best Featured Actress, Best Featured Actor, Best Choreography, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Musical. It also won the Grammy for Best Musical Show Album in 1996. After a nearly five year run and a bevy of special appearances, including Gloria Gaynor, Lou Rawls and Gladys Knight, the show closed Jan of 2000 after 2,036 performances.
In 2014, nearly 20 years after the first performance, Braxton directed original cast members for reunion concert performance of Smokey Joe’s at the famed Feinstein’s/ 54 Below.
“There’s so much history with us,” Braxton shared with the second of two sold-out crowds. “We weren’t just [together] on Broadway, we were a family.”
Production has yet to announce a venue.
Be sure to check in with Broadway Black for all the latest information!