J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole are two names that are, sadly, not as talked about in most theater history classes, but their contribution to the Broadway stage is invaluable. Both were multi-hyphenate artists whose impact in arts and activism still resonates today. With more recent productions celebrating the early age of Broadway and many 20th century classic shows planning to be revived, it is important to know the key players of this time in American theater history.
John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) was a Florida born composer who is best known for his song Lift Every Voice and Sing which went on to be known as the “Black National Anthem”. His brother, James Weldon Johnson, penned the lyrics. The two brothers travelled to New York City in 1899 to pursue a life in show business where they met composer Bob Cole (1868-1911). Cole had already seen some success with the vaudeville group, Black Patti Troubadours, and with his first creative partner, Billy Johnson; but an end to that relationship saw Cole in need of a new collaborator.
Cole and the Johnson brothers created their own vaudeville act in 1901 in which they performed their original compositions and dances. These shows led to the wildly successful song, Under the Bamboo Tree. The royalties from their songs and vaudeville shows gave them the means to produce something on a larger scale. In 1906, The Shoo-Fly Regiment, an all-black operetta, debuted on Broadway. The two wrote, produced, and starred in the show, and did the same two years later in The Red Moon. Cole and Johnson collaborated on many more songs and projects until Cole’s death in 1911.
Johnson went on to star in more Broadway productions such as Porgy and Bess and Cabin In the Sky, as well as compose hundreds of spirituals and musical theater songs. These type of creative ventures were prevalent in the early age of Broadway, especially among the underrepresented in the theater. The work of Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson inspired the Harlem Renaissance, the Golden Age of Broadway, and the appreciation of the theatrical tradition; for this, we celebrate them.
Behind The Curtain: Eclipsed Will Air The Historic Broadway Journey On Centric TV
Eclipsed is returning and this time it’s on television. Well, kind of.
According to the press realease:
BET International releases a multi-part documentary series chronicling the ascent and realization of ‘Eclipsed’; a Broadway play all written, directed and acted by women of African descent.
- Danai Gurira (Zimbabwe), playwright
- Liesl Tommy, (South Africa), director
- Lupita Nyong’o (Kenya), actress
- Akosia Busia, (Ghana), actress
- Zainab Jah (Sierra Leone), actress
- Saycon Sengbloh, (Liberia), actress
- Pascale Armand, (Haiti), actress
A winner of nine accolades including a Tony Award, the play tackles the survival stories of five women near the end of the second Liberian civil war. Written by actress, Danai Gurira who was inspired by a New York Times article about Black Diamond, a female freedom fighter and the female peace activists.
Broken into three episodes, each part delves into a central theme; Context, Cultivation, and Community. The series documents the fearless women using art to combat social injustice and give voice to the voiceless. With a strong production team including Stephen Byrd, Alia Jones Harvey and Michaela Angela Davis the documentary uses cinema-verite style to complement the rehearsal/show footage and ancillary interviews.
Ava L. Hall, executive producer and Vice President, Programming & Brand Advancement, BET International commented:
“It was really important to us to capture and to some extent immortalise the extraordinary stories of these women in Liberia and also the women who fought to bring it to fruition on the other side of the Atlantic, in New York on Broadway. This is a tale of how sisterhood, support and humanity travels globally to create a vision which breaks boundaries, sets new standards and while sobering, inspires a generation to find value and strength in their stories.”
This ground breaking play took its place firmly on Broadway and this documentary will take a place firmly in your heart and mind. Celebrating the intersection of Black and women’s history months airing on March 1, 2017 at 8pm EST on Centric
This is not one you’ll want to miss. You’ll even see a guest appearance from a photoshoot Broadway Black did before the Tony Awards. Live tweet with us tonight! @BroadwayBlack
EXCLUSIVE: Broadway Black Behind The Scenes Dreamgirls 35th Anniversary Concert
It’s been 35 years since The Dreamette’s “moved” their way into our hearts, and if you had the childhood I had, your home stereos. Which is why Broadway Black was more than thrilled to learn about the Dreamgirls 35th anniversary concert that would reunite its original stars Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine, and Jennifer Holliday. I mean thrilled, to the point I was trying to figure out how to not pay bills thrilled. On July 10th, the ladies performed at their one night only (Ha!), sold-out show in Hollywood, and they were even joined by some of our other favorite performers Frenchie Davis and Mary Wilson!
A night that was sure to be one for the books, it’s a shame that everyone in the world wasn’t able to witness it. However, this is Broadway Black and in true Broadway Black fashion our readers should know by now, WE GOT YOU. Check out an EXCLUSIVE behind the scenes look of the Dreamgirls 35th Anniversary Concert below, brought to you ONLY by Broadway Black.
If you still can’t get enough of Dreamgirls, remember it’s coming to London this fall (and hopefully Broadway after that!).
Theater Talks: The Color Purple Presented By Schomburg Center
This landmark musical based on Alice Walker’s novel of the same name follows the the inspirational Celie, as she journeys from childhood through joy and despair, anguish and hope to discover the power of love and life. With a fresh, joyous score of jazz, ragtime, gospel and blues, this European premiere is directed by John Doyle, and adapted for the stage by Pulitzer Prize and Tony award winner Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics by Grammy award-winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Join our evening conversation about the musical featuring Russell with producer Scott Sanders, and cast members Cynthia Erivo (Celie) and Isaiah Johnson (Mister).
— MichaelaAngela Davis (@MichaelaAngelaD) February 8, 2016
— Livestream (@Livestream) February 8, 2016
— SchomburgCenter (@SchomburgCenter) February 8, 2016
Sing Girl Sing: One on One with Sojourners Playwright Mfoniso Udofia
Ask Nigerian-American playwright, actress and educator Mfoniso Udofia what her first love is and she’ll tell you, to the surprise of many, “singing.” Surprising only because in the last decade, the American Conservatory Theater graduate has become renowned for several of her writing and philanthropic efforts, not her ingenue operatic vocal stylings. She is currently busy with her most recent work Sojourners, which opened Jan 21.
Abasiama came to America with high hopes—for her arranged marriage and for her future—intent on earning a degree and returning to Nigeria. But when her husband is seduced by America, she must choose between the Nigerian and the American dream.
Still, Broadway Black got the chance to sit down with Udofia and discuss why she took a break from singing, how she defines her work, and what exactly is “Nigeria-dar.”
Broadway Black (BB): You’re just like…a master of everything!
Mfoniso Udofia (MU): Oh, my mother is like ‘Be careful Mfoniso, don’t become a jack of all trades and master of none!’ Because I did, I liked to dabble!
BB: What’s the last incredible show you saw?
MU: I just saw The Color Purple and Cynthia Erivo… it’s like my Nigeria-dar went off! She was so good, like incandescent. From this little body came this gorgeous, gorgeous voice. The Color Purple itself, by Alice Walker, the book tore me up. The movie destroyed me. Then watching it… I think I forgot how deep the story was and the type of healing that story demands. Alice Walker is a beast. Reading her canon is good for the Black body.
BB: So did seeing Color Purple inspire you at all [to want to return to acting/singing]?
MU: For a hot HOT second! But I don’t sing like that, and that was a big thing when I was auditioning. I think people want me to sound a very particular way, because of what I look like. So it’s gonna demand a breaking of our gaze which sometimes is easy and sometimes is not.
BB: There’s been a lot of talk about the white gaze over the different productions. What would you say to someone who is trying to work under what we might veil as a “white gaze?”
MU: Having the uncomfortable conversations, in the beginning, is important and right at the start dismantling privilege. I do think that is something that Playwrights Realm was wonderful working with me going, ‘Listen, the play I’m writing right now, the gaze from which I’m writing it is not the gaze that most western theatergoers might understand and I am not interested in changing the internal heartbeat that way’ and I was actually listened to. But, you can’t make an assumption that you are understood. I push from the beginning so that in the middle when I’m pushing it can’t be like ‘Oh, I didn’t know this might be coming one day.’ I’m pretty upfront.
BB: What is unique to you and your storytelling?
MU: I make sound. It’s poetry, really. I may break the form of what feels like spoken word. My father was giving me narratives to read when I was young and I think I started thinking in poetry and it’s leaked into my writing. I love it because it confounds itself. The line will play on six different levels. The way poetry and prose fuse…
BB: If you had to give it a name…?
MU: If I had to give it a name… [You can hear her struggling to create the vocabulary for her art] You’re asking me to create on the spot, you’re watching the creative mist [she laughs]…. It is “true north.” My poetry is the container in Sojourners and is true north in Run Boy Run.
BB: What do you want your audience to take away from Sojourners?
MU: I want them to have critical sight into what the African-Nigerian body actually is. How certain immigrants might have come here to build a life. Especially since now, we’re having really interesting conversations on immigrants and there’s a particular sense of phobia in certain pockets, so to really understand what it’s like. I want audiences to understand that the WAY immigrants come into this country, they’re varied, there might not even be a desire to stay, and that building within the Amerian dream is a particular crisis. I hope this play complicates the idea of the American Dream and makes us understand that when immigrants are coming in they’re coming in with their own dreams and will become a fuel for the American Dream.
Also, I do hope people start to grapple with the African body vis-à-vis the African American body and we start to build language and see where connections fail and where connections can be made between those two communities.
On the set of #Sojourners today with playwright @mfudofia! Tonight the first preview for her stellar new play happens at @playwrightsrealm! This off-Broadway play is a dynamic debut for a playwright who is bound to have many more produced! Can’t wait to share all of what we talked about today. Look for it on BroadwayBlack.com! #BroadwayBlack
Theater Talks: The Royale Presented by Schomburg Center
Theater Talks: The Royale Presented by Schomburg Center
Moderator: Andrew Shade, Founder & Editorial Director of Broadway Black
Cast: McKinley Belcher III, Khris Davis, Clarke Peters
The Schomburg Center is proud to present an evening with cast members McKinley Belcher III, Khris Davis, and Clarke Peters from Lincoln Center Theater’s upcoming play, The Royale. Written by Marco Ramirez and directed by Rachel Chavkin, the play is inspired by the real-life experiences of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion.
Set in 1905, The Royale follows Jay “The Sport” Jackson as he faces his opponents – and confronts his demons – and exposes the troublesome events in his life that have propelled him into the ring with a burning desire to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
WHERE: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture – 515 Malcolm X Boulevard New York, NY 10037
REGISTER FOR FREE TICKETS HERE
Exclusive: Kimberly Scott Talks Sweat, Nottage Vs. Wilson, & What Inspires Her
Kimberly Scott has spent 30 years honing her craft in a distinguished and successful career in film, television, and theatre. A Tony Award nominee for her performance as “Molly” in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Scott has maintained longevity in a fickle profession that’s not known for its kindness to African American actresses by carefully moving from project to project in every genre. And her latest role in Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Sweat further cements her ability to seamlessly transition into a role that encounters challenges that many have faced and beckons her take her talents to new heights.
With more than 40 film and television projects under her belt, and having shared the screen with the likes of Forest Whitaker, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Robert Duvall, Salma Hayek, and Jenna Elfman, this Texas native and Yale School of Drama grad admits that theatre is her first love – embracing and reveling in the energy that’s shared with a live audience.
“It’s a sacred triangle between you, your fellow colleagues onstage, and the audience. There’s a synergy there that doesn’t exist with a camera,” Scott says.
Nottage’s Sweat is a timely and relevant piece that delves into the impact of corporate buyouts, outsourcing, and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs on human capital. Nottage set the play in a small town to “explore America’s industrial decline at the turn of the millennium by examining the inhabitants of one Pennsylvania town who still struggle to reclaim what’s lost, find redemption and redefine themselves in a new century.” Sweat premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in August and is now headed to the Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, DC, where it opens on January 15 and runs through February 21.
Scott is cast in the role of “Cynthia” one of two friends for life who work at a local factory in Reading, Pa. Tracey (Johanna Day) is white; and Cynthia is black. Their friendship is tested when Cynthia is promoted to management, causing a painful rift with Tracey, who had also applied. Tracey attributes Cynthia’s selection to tokenism.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Broadway Black, Scott discussed her latest role, her thoughts on comparisons of Nottage and Wilson, and other topics.
I know Lynn’s work and she’s a beast, she’s amazing, and opens windows into people’s souls, her character’s souls that are just astonishing and lovely. I had not even read the play when I said “yes.” I knew it was going to be beautiful. I knew it was Lynn, and I went, “I’m in. Can I read it?” They said, “We only have the first act. We only have the first act.” I said, “Let me read it.” I was like, “Okay, if you think…” they’re like, “Yeah, we think.” Then, about a month before we started, I got to read the whole play, and it blew my mind.
Reviewers have sometimes compared Nottage to August Wilson, particularly as it relates to dialogue. Do you see any similarities between the two, having worked with both of them?
I think that the joy in the language is absolutely there. That joy, that familiarity, that humanity, is absolutely comparable and the same, and glorious. It’s glorious, the way she makes these people that are completely familiar. You know who they are. You know these people, you know their situation, and you know their feeling. She does not write things that are easy. They’re beautiful mountains, they are beautiful mountains that you have to climb. You can’t see it, when they call places you can’t see the top. Somehow, you have to take it one scene at a time, one moment at a time. I feel that way about Sweat. You take it one moment at a time, you take it one scene at a time, you keep breathing, and you keep going forward in the experience of these characters in the play.
That was the way it was with August. Very, very keen ear for his own work. That’s the thing they have in common, the keen ear and also the joy. She has a great joy in the room. August would lean back and laugh and enjoy it. She enjoys hearing your experience of what she’s written. She enjoys you turning on the lights in this rooms that she’s furnished. It’s beautiful; it’s really quite beautiful.
“Cynthia” faces some very real issues when she gets the promotion – allegations of tokenism. Some of us have felt that at some point in life. As an actress who’s played very diverse roles, have you ever encountered anything like that and what was your response? Did your response affect how you handled that in the role?
Doing the play, telling this story is so familiar for so many of us. It’s so familiar. I had so many women walk up to me and say, “Girl, girl let me tell you. Girl.” It’s having that experience of suffering and questioning the value of your own ambition.
It’s hard because ambition is hard enough; self-esteem is hard enough. Then, to become a tool, to have it all, to be used in the way that she gets used, is hard. It’s hard to tell the story because it’s familiar. I really think that if you have any ambition at all, if you have any sense of self-esteem or achievement as an African-American woman in America, you can understand what Cynthia goes through. It’s tough to lean into what it is that she goes through with her friends. It’s not simple, it’s class, it’s race; it’s all of that. Friendship on top of that, and camaraderie, and 20 years of experience, 30 years of experience, it’s tough. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s close.
Every audience is different, but to do this play in Washington DC, so close to the area that this is talking about, so close. There will be exponentially more people who not only have had an experience like it, but will know exactly what we’re talking about. On top of that, possibly people in the audience who will have a possible way to affect the situation, policy wise, that’s very gratifying. I look forward to, possibly, the congressmen and senators, and people from the various departments of the U.S. Government who could come and see this play and understand, maybe, on a more fundamental level, what’s happening. I think that Lynn has written a play that is as illuminating to the deindustrialization of America and this moment in history that we’re at, as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was to that moment in American history – for the American working man.
For someone with such an impressive and enviable body of work, how have you been able to maintain longevity in a profession where people often get discouraged and give up, or they just can’t get the roles?
There came a moment when my dad died. It got real, as they say. I realized, life is finite, and daylight is burning. I was living in Los Angeles and when you live in Los Angeles, you do television and film, you tend to turn down a lot of theater to wait around for film work and television work. When my dad died I had just done a play and I realized how much I missed doing theater. I was doing theater over the years, but not as much as I could have been doing. I wasn’t doing everything that I was offered. I had this moment where I realized, “Wow, I need to follow my bliss. I need to do that. I need to trust that everything’s going to come out okay. I need to go ahead and do what’s offered to me because it’s coming to me for a reason.” I just decided, I’m not going to turn down nothing but my hat.
I’m Buddhist. My practice is so much about really attracting things and not chasing after my fortune. I’m not trying to chase after my fortune anymore. I’m really trusting that my fortune is coming to me. Ever since I’ve really tried to stand in that truth, it’s been great
My colleagues inspire me endlessly, their courage, their bravery. We have three new cast members and just the opportunity to rediscover the play with new people, that’s inspiring, as well as the experience of discovering it the first time with the people who originated their roles. I have a profound belief that the first cast leaves DNA in the play, there’s no getting around that.
When you do world premieres, you’re crafting an experience. You’re crafting a play. You’re crafting this thing, telling this story. You have these actors telling this story, this way. You’ve got a director working on it and on the way we tell that story, but no matter who the director is, and the playwright, and the words that the playwright has brought to the table, and we tell that story, there’s no getting around the fact that the first cast puts a stamp on it.
For tickets to see Scott in Sweat at the Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, DC, visit here.
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