Significant Black Theater Moments

Celebrating Black History-Makers on Broadway

Broadway history is Black history. The history-makers of the early 1900s broke down the color barriers and made space for the changemakers of the present. In honor of Black History Month, Broadway Direct celebrates the monumental firsts and significant moments in Black history on Broadway that continue to make a lasting influence on theater and beyond.

Here are 11 important Black theater moments that have impacted the theater industry as we know it.

George Walker, Adah Overton Walker, and Bert Williams in <i>In Dahomey</i>.
George Walker, Adah Overton Walker, and Bert Williams in In Dahomey.

In Dahomey – First Musical by Featuring an All-Black Cast on Broadway (1903)

Before Shuffle Along (1921), another show would open the doors for Black performers and writers on Broadway. In Dahomey was an early American “Negro musical comedy” and the first to be written almost entirely by Black writers and played entirely by Black artists at a major Broadway house. The story follows two conmen from Boston who, having found a pot of gold, devise a plan to move to Africa to colonize Dahomey with a group of poor American Blacks. The musical’s book was written by Jesse A. Shipp, with lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar and others. The show moved to Broadway in 1903 and landed at the former New York Theatre after a run at the Grand Opera House in Stamford, Connecticut.

Juanita Hall – First Black Performer to Win A Tony (1950)

Juanita Hall was a prominent American musical and film actress. In 1950, Hall became the first Black actor to win a Tony Award for her portrayal of Bloody Mary in the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Following her history-making performance, Rodgers and Hammerstein personally chose Hall to portray Madame Liang in their 1958 musical, Flower Drum Song.

Diahann Carroll – First Black Woman to Win A Tony Award For Best Actress in a Musical (1962)

After winning a Tony for her performance in No Strings, the first musical Richard Rodgers produced after the death of his longtime collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II, Diahann Carroll became the first Black woman to win the coveted award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical.

Hello Dolly! – All Black Hello Dolly! Re-opens to Rave Reviews (1967)

The Carol Channing-led Hello Dolly! opened in 1964 to rave reviews, a then-record-breaking ten Tony Awards (out of eleven nominations), and sold-out houses. The musical made history again when it was re-imagined in 1967 with an all-Black cast starring Pearl Bailey. Notably that year, The New York Times stated, “For Miss Bailey, this was a Broadway triumph for history books.” Producer David Merrick opened the production with Pearl Bailey as Dolly and Cab Calloway as Horace. Bailey was awarded a Special Tony Award for her performance as Dolly in 1968.

James Earl Jones – First Black Tony Award Winner in Any Play Category (1969)

For his leading role in The Great White Hope, James Earl Jones was awarded Best Actor in a Play at the Tony Awards, making him the first African-American winner in any play category. Jones would go on again to win Best Actor in a Play a second time in 1987, for August Wilson’s Fences. Jones is also one of the few artists to win an EGOT—Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award.

Hinton Battle, Stephanie Mills, Ted Roos, and Tiger Haynes in <i>The Wiz</i>. Photo credit: Martha Swope for The New York Public Library.
Hinton Battle, Stephanie Mills, Ted Ross, and Tiger Haynes in The Wiz. Photo credit: Martha Swope for The New York Public Library.

Geoffrey Holder – First Black Director to Win A Tony for Best Director of A Musical (1975)

The Wiz was a triumph for director, Geoffrey Holder. Holder was the first Black director to win Best Director of a Musical, as well as the first Black costume designer to win Best Costume Design. He won both statues for his work in the iconic musical that featured an all-Black cast.

Michael Harris – First Recorded Black Producer on Broadway (1988)

Michael Harris would only produce one Broadway play to date, but the production would make him the first recorded Black producer on Broadway. At the age of 26-years-old, Harris co-produced Checkmates, which featured Ruby Dee, Paul Winnfield and brought Denzel Washington his Broadway debut.

Suzan-Lori Parks – First Black Woman to Win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2002)

American playwright, screenwriter, musician, and novelist Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002 for her play, Topdog/Underdog. This win broke barriers as she would become the first Black woman to be awarded this prestigious award.

August Wilson Theatre – First Broadway Theatre to Bear the Name of a Black Playwright (2005)

Two weeks after award-winning playwright August Wilson’s death in 2005, the Virginia Theatre on Broadway was renamed to the August Wilson Theatre in his honor, becoming the first Broadway theatre to bear the name of a Black playwright.

Six Time Tony Award Winner Audra McDonald. Photo by Anita and Steve Shevett.
Six Time Tony Award Winner Audra McDonald. Photo by Anita and Steve Shevett.

Audra McDonald – Sets Tony Awards Record (2014)

When Audra McDonald won the 2014 Tony for her leading performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, she set two records, becoming the first performer ever to win six Tony awards, and also the first to win in all four acting categories.

7 Black Playwrights’ Works Re-open Broadway (2021)

More than a year into a global pandemic and amid an international social justice movement, Broadway is on the brink of change. Seven new plays, all by Black writers, worked to reopen Broadway after the shutdown. Those plays included: Pass Over by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu; Lackawanna Blues by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; Chicken & Biscuits by Douglas Lyons; Thoughts of a Colored Man by Keenan Scott II; Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress; Clyde’s by Lynn Nottage; and Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau.