The 2023 Tony Awards are making history in the Best Revival of a Play category, with the most Black playwrights nominated ever. Out of the four contenders, three of the nominated plays were written by Black playwrights: August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog. Henrik Isben’s A Doll’s House, adapted by Amy Herzog, is the final nominee of the category.
Best Revival of a Play has only been awarded since 1994, as musicals and plays were combined in one Best Revival category from 1977 to 1993. Hansberry was the first Black playwright to be nominated in the Best Revival of a Play category, with the 2004 production of A Raisin in the Sun. In fact, Hansberry and Wilson are the Black playwrights with the most nominations in this category: Hansberry garnered another nomination (and a win) for the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, while Wilson has been nominated three times and has won twice.
The only other Black playwright to win in this category is Charles Fuller with A Soldier’s Play in 2020. For the 2022 Tony Awards, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind both received nominations.
To honor this milestone, we’re exploring the history of the three nominated Black playwrights who are being recognized at the 2023 Tony Awards and their plays.
The Piano Lesson by August Wilson
Inspired by the Romare Bearden painting “The Piano Lesson,” Wilson’s drama of the same name made its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987 and debuted on Broadway in 1990.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning play follows the Charles family in 1936 Pittsburgh as they decide the fate of an important heirloom. The antique piano that sits in the parlor of Berniece Charles’s home is ornately carved with the images of the family’s enslaved ancestors. Berniece’s brother, Boy Willie, wants to sell the piano in order to buy the land their family worked on as slaves. She wants to keep the piano in order to preserve the family’s history.
The first Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson opened on October 13, 2022, and is now nominated for two 2023 Tony Awards: Best Revival of Play and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play (Samuel L. Jackson as Doaker Charles). In addition to Jackson, the cast included Danielle Brooks, Trai Byers, Nadia Daniels, Ray Fisher, April Matthis, Michael Potts, Jurnee Elizabeth Swan, and John David Washington. Directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, this production marks the first time a Wilson play has been helmed by a woman on Broadway.
The Piano Lesson was the fifth play Wilson wrote as a part of the American Century Cycle — his collection of 10 plays set in Pittsburgh (save for one set in Chicago). Each play is set in a different decade spanning the 1900s to the 1990s, providing a glimpse into the lives of Black Americans during each era.
Netflix has announced an upcoming movie version of the play, nearly three decades after The Piano Lesson’s first film adaptation in 1995. Two other plays from Wilson’s American Century Cycle have been transformed into films in the last few years: Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, both starring Viola Davis.
Ahead of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s film release, Davis said of Wilson’s writing: “I think that he captures our humor as Black people … our vulnerabilities, our tragedies, our trauma. And he humanizes us. And he allows us to talk.”
While Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in Chicago, the rest of Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays are set in the Black neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It’s the same neighborhood where Wilson was born in 1945, before moving to the white Hazelwood neighborhood when his mom remarried. Wilson has said his work was inspired by “the four Bs”: the blues, the aforementioned painter Bearden, poet Amiri Baraka, and poet Jorge Luis Borges. And he also made sure to infuse his plays’ dialogue with the rhythms and vernacular he heard in his childhood neighborhood.
When Brooks spoke to Broadway Direct in September 2022, she said, “I actually found putting August’s words in my body very challenging because it’s like jazz. Classics, like Shakespeare, have a structure and lexicon that you can rely on. With August, there is structure, but there’s a musicality to it that is very challenging to embody. You have to put your own life into it, and that’s something no one can really teach you.”
Wilson’s impressive use of language and important expression of Black American life has resonated with actors and audiences alike, cementing his place in the theatrical canon. Beyond the accolades and awards he garnered during his life, his impact reverberates throughout the industry in tangible ways.
Just 14 days after Wilson’s death from liver cancer in October 2005, Broadway’s Virginia Theatre on 52nd Street was renamed in his honor. Within the next year, he was posthumously inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and his hometown renamed the African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh as the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. The multidisciplinary arts center celebrates the African American experience and presents programming that reflects Wilson’s artistic vision.
If we consider Wilson’s legacy its own heirloom similar to the Charles family’s piano, it’s easy to see how it is passed down to future generations through The National August Wilson Monologue Competition. Founded in 2007 by True Colors Artistic Director Emeritus Kenny Leon and then–Associate Artistic Director Todd Kreidler, the competition “gives students across the country an opportunity to explore and share the richness of August Wilson’s Century Cycle.” You can watch the Netflix documentary Giving Voice to learn more.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window by Lorraine Hansberry
Hansberry is best known for her 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, which made her the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. Hansberry’s second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, starring Gabriel Dell and Rita Moreno, premiered on Broadway in October 1964.
At the center of the play lives Sidney and his wife, Iris, whose Greenwich Village apartment acts as a hub for their group of friends to come together and discuss identity, politics, and culture, all of which are changing rapidly in 1960s New York City.
The second Broadway revival stars Golden Globe winner Oscar Isaac and Emmy winner Rachel Brosnahan, and is nominated for two Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Play and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play (Miriam Silverman). Opening on April 27, 2023 — the last day of the Broadway season and Tony Awards eligibility — the production was a surprise, last-minute transfer from its Off-Broadway run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
When Broadway Direct spoke with BAM Artistic Director David Binder ahead of its run, he said, “This play was so of the time, but it also speaks to today. In both times, we are seeing incredible change taking place. We as audience members want to figure out how to make our way in these turbulent times.”
Hansberry uses The Sign as a canvas to explore a wide array of hauntingly relevant topics that are constantly discussed in media today in 2023, including political corruption, classism, and the experiences of marginalized groups through the play’s Black, LGBTQ, Jewish, and sex worker characters.
Critics had mixed reviews when The Sign first premiered on Broadway in 1964, and with the immense influence critics had during that era, the play expected to hang a closing sign in its window after only a week of performances. In contrast to the negative reviews, the play’s deep and complex themes resonated with many audience members — some of whom had their own influence and decided to take out an ad in The New York Times to urge the public to buy tickets.
“The news that Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window faces closing should disturb all who love theatre,” read the “An Open Letter: First-Rate Theatre Belongs on Broadway” ad. “Miss Hansberry’s new play is a work of distinction. It contains the humor and insight we associate with the finest traditions of our stage, and it is written with profound respect for the human condition. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is concerned with the turbulent life of our times. It is, in turn, powerful, tender, moving, and hilarious. Whether it survives or closes will be determined this week. … We the undersigned, who believe in it enough to pay for this ad, urge you to see it now.”
The undersigned included James Baldwin, Paddy Chayefsky, Sammy Davis, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Lillian Hellman. The ad inspired more artists to herald their own calls-to-action, including Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, leading to a widespread campaign with phone calls and postshow speeches from other Broadway shows’ casts. The outpouring of support kept The Sign open for 101 performances across two Broadway theatres, the Longacre Theatre and Henry Miller’s Theatre. It played its final performance on January 10, 1965, just two days before Hansberry’s death from pancreatic cancer.
Playwright was just one of the many hats that Hansberry wore during her 34 years of life, as she was also a journalist, an activist, and a painter. Her activism was completely integrated into her writing, not just in her plays but also in the articles she penned during her time as a staff writer for the Black newspaper Freedom, published by Paul Robeson. She was vigilant in the fight for civil rights on the ground as well, being involved in a number of in-person protests — meeting her husband, Robert Nemiroff, at one. Even after they divorced in 1962, they remained professional partners. It would later be revealed that Hansberry privately identified as a lesbian, even contributing to The Ladder, the magazine of the San Francisco–based lesbian rights organization Daughters of Bilitis.
Over a half century after her passing, Hansberry’s legacy lives on in a multitude of ways, including inspiring other artists, like Nina Simone for her song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” which was inspired by Hansberry’s autobiographical play.
Most recently, sculptor Alison Saar created a piece entitled “To Sit a While,” which features Hansberry surrounded by five life-size chairs, which represent different aspects of her work and invite observers to sit with her and think. The statue was created as a part of The Lilly Awards’ launch of the Lorraine Hansberry Initiative, which “aims to honor the great American playwright and civil rights leader’s legacy while investing in those following in her footsteps.” After being unveiled in Times Square in June 2022, the statue has gone on to tour the country. The Initiative also includes scholarships for three female and/or nonbinary dramatic writers of color entering graduate school. You can learn more here.
Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
Parks’s Topdog/Underdog made its world premiere Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in July 2001, starring Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright, with direction by George C. Wolfe. The play quickly transferred to Broadway, with Mos Def replacing Cheadle, opening at the Ambassador Theatre in April 2002. When the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same month, Parks became the first Black woman to receive the award.
Topdog/Underdog, “a darkly comic fable of brotherly love and family identity,” follows the story of two brothers, one named Lincoln and one named Booth — both names given to them by their dad as a joke — as they navigate poverty, race, and their work as a scam artist and a carnival sideshow performer.
The first Broadway revival opened on October 20, 2022, in honor of the play’s 20th anniversary. Starring Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, both actors earned Tony Award nominations for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play, in addition to the production’s Best Revival of a Play nod.
The powerful notions explored in Topdog/Underdog continue to resonate decades after its original run. When it earned the No. 1 spot on The New York Times’s 2018 list of the greatest American plays of the past 25 years, they cited that Parks “plies the fine theatrical art of deception to convey the dangers of role-playing in a society in which race is a performance and prison.”
When Broadway Direct spoke to the revival’s director, Kenny Leon, he said, “What other play is there that has the ingredients that this play has? It has the best of what makes a comedy great. It has the best of what makes a drama great. It has the best of what makes a classical piece of theater work. And even though it’s not a musical, it has all the rhythm and all the best of musical theater. I don’t know anything that feeds us like this particular play.”
It’s no surprise Parks incorporates a sense of rhythm into her work, as she is no stranger to musicality. In addition to being a playwright, she is a musician, singer-songwriter, and has worked on several stage musicals. In 2007, she began work as the librettist of the Ray Charles musical, and in 2011, she adapted the book for the revival of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
Considered a genius as a winner of the MacArthur “Genius” award in 2001, Parks has proven her command of the written word, scribing more than 20 plays, five screenplays, and a novel over the span of her career. She began writing plays all thanks to fellow writer and playwright James Baldwin. She was a student in his undergraduate short story writing class at Hampshire College. Parks said of the experience, “I was very animated with all my gesturing and I used voices for the characters in my stories. Mr. Baldwin said, ‘Have you ever thought about writing for the theater?’ I started writing a play that day.”