The Wilma Theater in Center City Philadelphia presented a notable run of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from March 25, 2015 – May 2, 2015. British-African actress Zainab Jah is the first Black woman on record having ever played the conflicted Prince of Denmark, making history in the theater world.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, considered by many to be the greatest play written in the English language, was written around 1600. The first production outside Europe took place in 1607 on board the Red Dragon, anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone. Ironically, Jah would discover that four of her ancestors, tribal chiefs in West Africa, witnessed this performance. Jah, who lived with her grandmother in Sierra Leone until moving to Britain aged ten, would perform the eponymous role four hundred years later, as one of the most talked about young princes in world literature.
Zainab Jah began her life in the theatre as part of a children’s theatre company run by her grandmother in Freetown, Sierra Leone. At age ten, Jah was sent to live with her physician parents in England. After her initial culture shock, Jah went to school and later studied modern dance and classical ballet and theater in London. Jah says this training “turned out to be a good thing for me as it means I have an ease of movement and a keen spatial awareness, which I’m not sure I would have developed quite as quickly as I did when I became a professional actor.” Undoubtedly, the fluidity Jah acquired as a dancer was instrumental during her fencing scenes in Hamlet.
Embodying the role of Hamlet, daunting in its own right but especially so as the first Black woman to have done so, provided Jah with some doubt. “One of the first things I said when Blanka asked me to do this, I kept saying no because I kept saying, ‘Well, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m an African woman,’ ” recalls Zainab Jah. But Wilma’s Artistic Director Blanka Zizka was undeterred. “Zainab’s particular abilities – her presence and charisma, her strength with language, her physicality – suggested Hamlet to me.” Though Zizka did not seek out a woman for the title role, she did not shirk away from her eventual conclusion. “I made a list of actors I would like to see working with me and it eventually became very clear to me that Zainab was going to be my Hamlet,” Zizka explained. Zizka has said that if Jah hadn’t agreed to do it, there would have been no Hamlet at the Wilma this season. The minority, female-led production sold out almost every night of its run.
While we have missed our opportunity to see Zainab Jah live as Hamlet, the Internet provides this glimpse into her powerful performance:
Zainab Jah, whose credits include film, television, and the stage, is currently writing her first play called A New Spring about an immigrant family where the child suddenly realizes that her father isn’t her father.
Black Broadway, An “Act” in Social Justice
“I write the black experience in America, and contained within that experience, because it is a human experience, are all the universalities.”
— August Wilson
Whether it be Jennifer Holliday belting out “And I am Telling You”, from her Tony Award winning performance in Dreamgirls or Viola Davis’s mesmerizing scenes from her Tony Award winning performance in Fences, Black theatre has always been the rawest form of Art imitating Life. These performances of some of the greatest stories ever to be told, have created long lasting connections to song, scene’s, and lines that forever remain engrained in the minds of the black community. Hollywood and Television, give you a second take if you miss a line, an angle is off, or the passion isn’t right, but Broadway gives you one shot at success or failure, often duplicative of the black experience and condition.
Black theatre has been the window that allowed the world to see the intersections of blackness from less than 10 feet away. However, this same space for viewing the arts is often left out of the conversations when we discuss the media’s impact on social justice movements, and how Broadway has served as a conduit towards creating effective changes against the status quo. Historically, Black theatre has been the first to acknowledge society issues through raw storytelling of playwrights like Wilson, Amiri Baraka, Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, and many others. Their works were much deeper than the “imitation of life”, as their minds allowed them to tell narratives of blackness, without censorship, giving the world 2-hour glimpses of the totality of the black experience.
From racially divided beginnings, however, Black theatre has, and at times continues to remain in the shadows, fighting for theatre space, roles, and narratives that depict stories often left on the back burner in society. The origins of “Blackface” serve as a reminder of where Broadway began, as white actors depicted black people as unintelligible beings while reinforcing stereotypes of the black community in an effort to create a good time at the hands of whiteness. Resistance began when black actors like Bert Williams, who played many characters in black face, gave a human element to his funny role instead of just being a caricature. His talent shined through and made him the first black man to star alongside white co-stars as equals in the “Follies”. This would only mark the beginning of resistance in Black theatre, as stories began to humanize black people in a country built on segregation.
In 1921, Shuffle Along became the first black show to forgo “blackface” and show African Americans in a sophisticated style of dress, introducing a new template for how black performers and shows would be depicted moving forward. In another step against the status quo, the show which had 504 performances became the first on Broadway to allow Blacks to sit in the orchestra section. 1935 would bring the world Porgy and Bess, which is claimed by many to be the most famous black opera to ever play on Broadway. This show depicted a side of blackness that many considered stereotypical but true, putting people face to face with parts of the black community we didn’t want others to see . The revival of this show in 2012 re-invited the world to the story on “Catfish Row”, winning a Tony Award for Audra McDonald and nomination for Norm Lewis.
This form of resistance is nothing new to Black theatre, which has always had to fight to be recognized not only for their talents but for the lives of folks they often portray on the stage. August 1st of 2016 saw the Black theatre come together for the “Broadway for Black Lives Concert Event” which brought out several stars including six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, and Tony Award winner Billy Porter and nominee Danielle Brooks (The Color Purple) in addition several others. This concert was put on to show a stand in solidarity while supporting the efforts of the Black Lives Matter Movement. According to the Broadway for Black Lives Matter Collective, “An overwhelming number of friends and colleagues in the Broadway community have expressed a deep desire to participate in an open dialogue about the social and racial justice issues that are troubling our nation. The event will bring Broadway performers together with policy reformers, educators, clergymen, public officials, and community leaders to discuss a plan of action. The evening will spark conversation and encourage people to discover their roles as active participants in a movement towards positive change.” Black theatre has seemingly never been afraid to confront issues of the community off stage, but more recently has taken it right to face of the oppressor from the stage.
Following the 2016 election, the cast of Hamilton stood together in protest following the election of Donald Trump, when actor Bradon Victor Dixon, who play Aaron Burr, stated “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” His remarks caught the eye of the President who in a since-deleted tweet claimed his VP was “harassed” and deserved an apology, to which Dixon responded in a now deleted tweet “@realDonaldTrump conversation is not harassment sir. And I appreciate @mike_pence for stopping to listen.”
Black theatre has forever lived in the shadows of what many refer to as “The Great White Way.” A system, like many others that won’t be changed overnight but with constant work and resistance can be broken and built anew, reflective of the world we actually live in. The last century of Black theatre has seen great strides made towards equity and equality on and off the stage. I expect Act II to be just as great as all those that came prior, with the hopes of a “Curtain Call” for a job well done.
Hello, Dolly! The Past, The Present, and The Prospective Future
A few weeks ago, previews began for the Bette Midler-led revival of Hello, Dolly! over at the Shubert Theatre. Midler last appeared on Broadway in her hilarious one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last at the Booth three years ago, and Fiddler on the Roof in 1967, when the actress had last starred in a musical on the Great White Way.
This revival of Hello, Dolly! marks the fourth incarnation of the Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman musical since its first inception in 1964, starring Carol Channing. The original production played well, but after three years and a slight decline in ticket sales, producer David Merrick decided he needed to shake things up a bit.
What better way to achieve shock value than to recast the show and create an all-Black version with the amazingly talented Pearl Bailey as matchmaker Dolly Levi and Cab Calloway as Horace Vandergelder.
Nowadays, a stunt like this would surprise no one, but in the late 1960s –a time of war and protest, racism and hate– the casting was nearly unheard of. The cast, however, didn’t deter people from seeing the show.
In fact, Hello, Dolly! opened to glowing reviews on November 12, 1967, at the St. James Theatre. This new version would later close on December 27, 1970, bringing the total cumulative Broadway run to 2,844 performances, thus making it the longest-running musical of its time.
Due to popularity, producers released another cast recording with the all-Black cast and Bailey received a Special Tony Award in 1968. She would eventually reprise her role in a short-lived revival in 1975 with Billy Daniels.
After her successful run as Dolly, more opportunities opened up for Black actresses to step into the role of the meddling matchmaker including: Thelma Carpenter, who actually went on as Bailey’s alternate on Wednesday matinees and performed in over 100 performances, Edwina Lewis, and E. Faye Bulter — whose 1990 version included the cut song “Love, Look in My Window.”
Looking back on this amazing production, and with the revival set to officially open in April, we got to thinking: If we could recast Hello, Dolly! today, who are some Black actresses we’d like to see?
Check out some of Team BB answers below:
JHD: Jenifer Lewis. She can blow, she has sass, she needs to be on Broadway since yesterday. And she would absolutely make an amazing Dolly. She actually played the title role back in 2009 in a Seattle Regional Production. If not a Broadway reprisal, we’ll settle for a revival of Mame too.
Tristan: Whoopi Goldberg, Queen Latifah, or Vanessa Williams. Here for all three of them, though the Ugly Betty fan in me is truly here for a Wilhelmina Slater-inspired Dolly.
Who would YOU cast? Sound off in the comments below.