LOST IN THE STARSBlack Theatre Makers Drawn By Hirschfeld

Black actors, directors, composers, lyricists, playwrights, designers, and producers have long played a role in the American Theater despite the inherent racism on The Great White Way. From the start in the minstrel shows of the 19th century, Black artists have suffered underrepresentation both on and off stage in America. Modern Black theater on Broadway begins with the legendary Shuffle Along, a Black musical that literally set the template for Black musical comedies for a decade, and while Hirschfeld had yet to draw the theater when the show premiered in 1921, his first drawing of Black performers ever was of Miller and Lyles, the stars and book writers of Shuffle Along. Over the next nine decades, Hirschfeld would often draw Black theater makers in comedies, musicals, dramas, and revues. In fact, his first and last theater posters, covering more than 50 productions over sixty years were of Black performers.

The title of this exhibition comes from the musical of the same name that explored the racial injustices of the 20th century South Africa apartheid system. But it can also serve as a metaphor of the Black creative in a predominantly white theater world. Too often the contributions of Black artists have been minimized or co-opted, and the Al Hirschfeld Foundation wants to celebrate many of the Black stars in all disciplines that make the American Theater what it is today. In this online exhibition, we present 26 images from over 72 years, but there are many, many more. This will be the first of multiple exhibitions that will explore Black theater, film, dance, and music over the next year. We believe that BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK ART MATTERS. And BLACK THEATRE MATTERS.

David Leopold
Creative Director

We recognize that some drawings could be found offensive. Hirschfeld’s work is generally described as caricature, but the label is limiting. His art is not pejorative. His intent was not to poke fun at his subjects or perpetuate stereotypes, but rather it was a distillation and celebration of the performance. Exaggeration is used for emphasis so that the drawings, as one fellow artist said of Hirschfeld’s work, look more like the person than the person does.

 

Special thanks to Jon Luini and Chime Interactive; Todd Johnson, Jonathan Higginbotham, Keith Sherman, and Katherine Eastman.

RANG TANG with F.E. Miller and Aubrey LylesNewspaper reproduction of ink and charcoal on board, 1927

After minstrel shows and vaudeville, Black musical comedy starts with Miller and Lyles, a comedy team who wrote the book and starred in the 1921 landmark musical comedy, Shuffle Along, the first Broadway hit show produced, performed, and written by Black theater makers. They created the template for Black shows for the next decade, including characters which appeared in other shows by other writers. Miller and Lyles revived their characters for this lavish 1927 production of Rang Tang, where the duo played barbers in Jimtown, who just months after Lindbergh made his famous flight over the Atlantic, fly non stop to Africa.  They co-directed Rang Tang with an all Black creative team and a large Black cast. It ran for 119 performances.  After Lyles died in 1932, Miller continued both on Broadway and Hollywood and was posthumously nominated for a Tony Award in 1979 for his work that appeared in Eubie.

VOODOO MACBETHNewspaper reproduction of ink and lithograph pencil, 1936

This all Black Macbeth, commonly referred to as the “Voodoo Macbeth” changed its setting from medieval Scotland to late 19th century Haiti in The Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project’s production directed by a 20 year old Orson Welles. Other than the setting, the play was presented unabridged and when it opened, defying all expectations, it was a hit with both Black and white audiences. The show convinced Canada Lee that he was truly an actor. “Suddenly, the theatre became important to me. I had a respect for it, for what it could say.” It toured throughout the country, providing many theatergoers the first chance to see a professional performance by Black performers. Asadata Dafora, a Sierra Leonean drummer and choreographer, employed African musical and dance tradition to add authenticity to the Haitian setting that became part of the folklore surrounding the production. The final scene was filmed by the WPA just days after Hirschfeld’s drawing appeared in The New York Times

NATIVE SONNewspaper reproduction of ink and lithograph pencil, 1941

Despite being a professional actor for seven years, Lee became an “ overnight sensation” in his role of Bigger Thomas in the stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son on Broadway. After its initial New York run, Lee starred in a 19-month national tour, and a second run on Broadway, bringing this powerful story to audiences everywhere.  New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson called Lee "certainly the best Negro actor of his time, as well as one of the best actors in this country." Wright was also impressed by the contrast between Lee's affable personality and his intensity as Bigger Thomas, the Black man driven to murder by racial hatred. Lee spoke to schools, sponsored various humanitarian events, and began speaking directly against the existing segregation in America's armed forces at this time, and was eventually blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his progressive viewpoint.

OTHELLO with Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen, Jose Ferrer, and Margaret Websterink on board, 1942

This was first American production of Othello to cast a Black actor in the title role with a white supporting cast (and the first interracial kiss on a Broadway stage), and it still holds the record for the longest-running Shakespeare play on Broadway. At the conclusion of the production’s North American tour, it played to sold out houses at New York City Center. Robeson, already a legendary performer and activist, was reluctant to return to New York with the production because after the good reviews the show received when it opened on Broadway in 1943, he didn’t want “to give them another shot at me.” Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia convinced Robeson it was his “duty” to be seen at City Center at a $2 top ticket. Robeson and the production continued to get great reviews until the end of the run.

CARMEN JONES with Luther Saxon, Jessica Russell, Carlotta Granzell, June Hawkins, Glenn Bryant, Dick Montgomery, Muriel Smith, and Cosy ColeInk on board, 1943

Six weeks after Othello opened on at the Shubert Theater, Carmen Jones, an all Black re-telling of Bizet’s Carmen opened at the Broadway Theater. Carmen Jones was set in the South during World War II and without changing any of the music, Oscar Hammerstein, fresh off the success of Oklahoma! revised the book and lyrics to create a beguiling show that played for over a year on Broadway, before a nationwide tour and two more presentations at New York’s City Center (where it’s original success was one of the first big hits for the country’s first real performing arts center.) The cast was composed primarily of first time actors.  Jazz drummer Cosy Cole made his only Broadway appearance in leading the number “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum.”

Decision with Georgia Burke, Laurence Hugo, and Raymond GreenleafInk on board, 1944

During World War II, playwright Edward Chodorov felt compelled to show that the fascism the United States was fighting was not only happening abroad. His Decision took place in a modern American city where the expansion of a manufacturing plant into a war industry has brought an influx of Black workers to a predominantly white community. Even before the curtain rises there is a race riot at the plant, started by bigots who feel threated by the new arrivals. Georgia Burke played Virgie, a former housekeeper who worked in the plant, and served as the moral conscience of the play. “Virgie’s a fighter, as well as being funny,” said Burke one night in her dressing room. “And you’d be surprised how many Virgies there are today fighting for their children and grandchildren.” When no Broadway producer would touch the play, Chodorov and a few friends put it on themselves, and it played 160 performances.

ANNA LUCASTA with Canada Lee and Hilda SimmsInk on board, 1944

Abram Hill, co-founder of the American Negro Theater adapted a play about a Polish American family for his company and retitled it Anna Lucasta. First presented in the basement of the 125th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), it transferred to the Mansfield Theater on Broadway six weeks later. "With the arrival of Anna Lucasta on Broadway," proclaimed Life magazine, "the 1944–45 theater season had its first worthwhile drama." “It is the first American play designed for an all colored cast to treat colored life without a certain amused condescension,” wrote the reviewer for The Baltimore Afro-American, “… the first play of colored life to recognize the fact that colored persons are individuals with the same problems, ways of living, speech, and point of views as the whites…” The show ran two years on Broadway before an extensive national tour and one of Europe. It was later adapted for film in 1958.

Original drawing available for sale. Price list available on request.

LOST IN THE STARS with Leslie Banks, Julian Mayfield, Todd DuncanInk on board, 1949

In 1948 segregation was rampant in the U.S., but was literally a state policy in South Africa under apartheid. The same year, Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country, an epic novel about life in Black and white South Africa was published and read widely in this country, introducing many to the racial injustice there. The novel was adapted as a Broadway musical, some would say, opera, by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill. Todd Duncan, who originally played Porgy in the Gershwin opera led the primarily Black cast in a story of the suffering caused by all racial violence, as well as about reconciliation. Julian Mayfield, a writer, director, and international civil rights activist, made his only Broadway appearance as Duncan’s son, whose life is ruined by racial injustice and the poverty it causes.

THE MEDIUM with Leo Coleman, Zelma George, and Gian-Carlo MenottiInk on board, 1950

On May 15, 1946, Camilla Williams appeared on the City Center stage as the tragic Japanese geisha in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly for New York City Opera, the first Black woman to receive a regular contract with a major American opera company. Three years later, Zelma George was cast in the title role in Gian-Carlo Menotti's opera, The Medium, a role that had only been played by white singers. Her success led Menotti to cast in her the Broadway revival of the opera, marking one of the earliest cases of non-traditional casting on Broadway. Having already earned a Ph.D., George would go on to public service at the national level, culminating in a world lecture tour as good-will ambassador and an appointment as U.S. alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly (1960-61).

Original drawing available for sale. Price list available on request.

GOLDEN BOY with Sammy Davis Jr. and Paula WayneInk on board, 1964

This musical challenged Broadway audiences with a story that addressed real social and political frustration. A rewrite of Clifford Odet’s 1937 drama of the same name, Davis implored writer William Gibson to “write colored,” and this musical focused more on Davis’s character’s, Joe’s ambition to escape Harlem, and the general plight of the Black community. Joe’s brother worked for CORE, and the romance between Joe and the white Lorna developed into an affair capped by a kiss that shocked audiences and brought death threats. Its big production number, “Don’t Forget 127th Street” mocked the Broadway trope of poor people being content with their lot, and loving the slum where they live. In late March 1965, Davis participated in the Selma to Montgomery March, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.. King had already seen Golden Boy, and is said to have been drawn to the big gospel number “No More” (“I ain’t bowin’ down, No more!”). Davis continued fundraising for civil rights causes during Golden Boy’s run, and Davis and his producer organized Broadway Answers Selma for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference

DIANA SANDS in Saint JoanInk on board, 1967

Sands made her debut on Broadway in 1959 in the original production of A Raisin in the Sun. The two-time Tony nominee would go on to be a pioneer in non-traditional casting, starring with Alan Alda in the original stage production of The Owl and the Pussycat and as the first Black actress to play Shaw’s Saint Joan in a professional production (at Lincoln Center). She would go on to receive two Emmy nominations for her television work and starred in several films including 1971’s The Landlord before dying tragically young from cancer.

GREAT WHITE HOPE with James Earl Jones and Jane AlexanderInk on board, 1970

The first time the cast of a regional theater production was brought to Broadway, was when James Earl Jones led the cast of The Great White Hope, a lightly fictionalized stage drama about heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and his white wife (played by Jane Alexander) from the Arena Stage in Washington DC to the Alvin Theatre in New York in 1969. The play won the Tony Award for Best Play (and its stars also won Tonys for their performance) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. When the film was adapted two years later both Jones and Alexander were nominated for Oscars. Jones has been nominated or received virtually every accolade in his profession, as well as national honors as he has been described as "one of America's most distinguished and versatile" actors known for his performance in film, theater and television.”

Nathan George in NO PLACE TO BE SOMEBODYInk on board, 1973

No Place To Be Somebody is a landmark play. Described as a “Black-black comedy,” it was the first play written by a Black playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize. The plot of the play revolves around an Black bar owner/pimp and wannabe racketeer named Johnny Williams (played by Nathan George), and others who hang around the bar: a mixed-race actor, a Black gay dancer, a Jewish floozy, a Black sex worker, an Irish hipster, an aging Black hustler, a member of the Italian mafia, an influential white judge, and the judge’s idealistic daughter. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that while it is a protest play, “the protest is not confined to discrimination against the Blacks. It is against the common injustices of life, and the protest is ably made by a dramatist who can write with lyricism as well as fury.” See a filmed scene with the original cast. 

Original drawing available for sale. Price list available on request.

THE GREAT MACDADDY with David Downing, Hattie Winston, and Al FreemanInk on board, 1974

The Great MacDaddy was hailed as “the birth of the new Black musical.” A synthesis of African and African American motifs that resurrected many of the fabled heroes of the urban storytelling tradition, including Shine, Stagolee, and the Signifyin’ Monkey, the play-with-music took audiences from Prohibition to Los Angeles of the 1970s in a historic production by the Negro Ensemble Company. The production, directed by company co-founder Douglas Turner Ward, won the Obie for Best Play.

GUYS AND DOLLS with James Randolph, Ernestine Jackson, Emmet Wallace, Norma Donaldson, Robert Guillaume, Ken Page, and Christopher PierreInk on board, 1976

Black actors and directors had tackled classics from Shakespeare to Shaw, but director and choreographer Billy Wilson, fresh off the success of Bubbling Black Sugar, decided to reinterpret a classic of musical comedy: Guys and Dolls. The all Black cast, led by Robert Guillaume as Nathan Detroit and Norma Donaldson as Miss Adelaide transmuted the ethnic aspects of the show into Black culture. The music was given more modern rhythm and blues arrangements, which helped to erase any thought that the show could only be played by a white cast. It was a hit, running 239 performances and earning three Tony nominations.

ED BULLINSInk on board, 1976

While still a student in San Francisco, Bullins became involved in the social/political activity of the Black Panther Party and eventually served as its Minister of Culture. Bullins came of age during the Black Power Movement, a period of racial pride and social consciousness. His early affiliation with the Black Arts Movement greatly influenced the structure of his plays. "Ed Bullins, along with Amiri Baraka, is probably the most celebrated playwright to come out of the Black Arts Movement,” wrote one historian. “Bullins radically revised avant-garde drama, while reaching out to a broad audience. His plays are suffused with trenchant, dire realism depicting the everyday struggles of African Americans with psychological depth that poeticizes their everyday speech." He later became the Resident Playwright at the New Lafayette Theatre in Harlem.  He ran the Black Theatre Workshop, which gave starts to many great Black writers. Bullins also edited Black Theatre Magazine, directed the Writers' Unit Playwrights Workshop at the Public Theatre, and the Playwrights Workshop at the New Federal Theatre.  When this portrait appeared, Bullins was in the midst of a 20-play cycle about the Black experience and had two plays running off Broadway.

Original drawing available for sale. Price list available on request.

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf with Trazana Beverly, Paula Moss, Janet League, Aku Kadogo, Rise Collins, Laurie Carlos, and Ntozake ShangeInk on board, 1976

Ntozake Shange's first and most acclaimed theater piece, is a series of poetic monologues accompanied by dance movements and music (a form she coined as the “choreopoem”) that tell the stories of seven women who have suffered oppression in a racist and sexist society. Subjects from rape, abandonment, abortion, and domestic violence are tackled in an idiosyncratic style that often uses vernacular language, unique structure, and unorthodox punctuation to emphasize syncopation as a way to mimic how real women speak. First performed in a bar in California, Shange moved to New York and eventually the Public Theater produced the show, which then transferred to Broadway in 1976 becoming the second play by a Black woman to reach Broadway (preceded by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun in 1959). Opening in the same season as the original productions of Neil Simon’s California Suite, Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, and David Mamet’s American Buffalo, the original production of for colored girls… outlasted them all, running until July 1978. It was later filmed for television with an all-star cast. 

Douglas Turner Ward in THE BROWNSVILLE RAIDInk on board, 1977

Douglas Turner Ward is a playwright, actor, director, and producer best known as a co-founder and artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), a landmark theatrical venture. Prior to the 1960s, there were virtually no outlets for the wealth of Black theatrical talent in America. Playwrights writing about the Black experience could not get their work produced, but the NEC changed all that creating a canon of theatrical works and an audience for writers who came later, such as August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks, and others. As an actor, Turner made his Broadway debut in a small role in A Raisin in the Sun. His first significant artistic achievement would be as a playwright, when his Happy Ending/Day of Absence, ran for 504 performances at the St. Mark's Playhouse in Manhattan after opening in November, 1965. When he wrote about the state of Black theater in the New York Times, The Ford Foundation offered to underwrite the NEC, allowing it to produce multiple years of Black focused works at the Playhouse. This drawing is from their production of The Brownsville Raid in 1977 about a company of Black soldiers in 1906 who are an unjustly accused of starting a riot.

Original drawing available for sale. Price list available on request.

HOME with L. Scott Caldwell, Charles Brown, and Michelle ShayInk on board, 1980

Home, according to the opening night review in the New York Times “is a bountiful harvest. Rich in local language and home-hewn poetry, the play is brought vibrantly to life by a three-person ensemble cast led by Charles Brown. He offers one of the season’s finest performances as Cephus Miles, a land-loving man of the soil. To echo the words of Cephus, Home is a play with ‘love, passion and purpose.’” Written by Samm-Art Williams, directed by Douglas Turner Ward and produced by the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), Home was nominated for both Tony and Drama Desk awards. Again NEC had tapped a rich vein of talent for this production that told the story of a simple farmer in the South, who is let down by love, imprisoned for his counscitious objection to the Vietnam War, and cheated and abused in the North, before returning to his family farm and eventually the woman he loves. The Times concluded that, “Home is a play from the heart, about the heartline of America—a play that all theatergoers should embrace.”

Original drawing available for sale. Price list available on request.

Thuli Damakude in POPPIE NONGENAInk on board, 1983

By the late 1970s, the apartheid system of racial segregation in South Africa was often the subject of plays on and off Broadway, including The Biko Inquest, Woza Albert, Sarafina!, and Athol Fugard plays including "MASTER HAROLD"…and the boys and Blood Knot. Poppie Nongena may have been the first to deal with this injustice from the viewpoint of a South African woman. A dramatization of Elsa Joubert's successful novel about Poppie, who suffers the cruelties both large and small of apartheid, as the audience witnesses a mural-like recap of South African history, climaxing with the Soviet riots of 1976. The production’s ritualistic movement and music, as well as its dramatic simplicity and warmth gave Poppie Nongena the tone and intimacy of a folk tale told around a campfire. All of these productions helped to galvanize the U.S. movement to boycott South Africa that eventually helped to end the system in 1991.

Original drawing available for sale. Price list available on request.

Leilani Jones in GRINDInk on board, 1985

Jones had already made theater history when she made her Tony-winning Broadway debut in Grind, produced and directed by Hal Prince. Jones originated the role of Chiffon in the original cast of Little Shop of Horrors, and played the role for three years. Jones next went on to play the role of Satin, a stripper at a Chicago burlesque show, in Grind, a musical about a 1933 burlesque house that featured both Black and white performers, and their segregation on and off stage. While Ben Vereen was the star, and the show itself received mixed reviews, it was Jones, who Frank Rich in his opening night review called “a find,” and who won the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a musical.

Vy Higginsen In MAMA I WANT TO SINGInk on board, 1987

Higgensen is the author, producer, and sometimes performer in the longest running Black Off Broadway show in history, Mama I Want To Sing! She based the musical on the life of her sister Doris Troy, who had a 1963 hit "Just One Look" that launched her to international fame and a successful career. Higginsen and Ken Wydro, her husband, wrote the book and lyrics, only to have the show rejected by every major producer in New York, who did not believe there was a large enough audience who would support a Black show of this nature. Undaunted, the couple invested their life-savings to rent Heckscher Theatre in East Harlem, which had been closed for 15 years. The show opened in March 1983, and played for eight years and over 2,500 performances in New York. It went on to play another 1,000 performances through a three-year national tour;  then a run in London’s West End; several European tours; multiple appearances in the Caribbean; and seven tours throughout Japan. Over the years such noted performers as Chaka Khan, Patti Labelle, Doris Troy, Shirley Caesar, and Tisha Campbell, have appeared in the show.

AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' with Charlane Woodward, Andre De Shields, Nell Carter, Ken Page, and Armelia McQueenInk on board, 1988

In 1978, the Manhattan Theater Club put on a showcase of five Black performers in a revue of songs by or associated with the legendary pianist Fats Waller, It electrified audiences and it quickly moved to Broadway, where it ran for four years in three different theaters. Ten years after it opened, the original cast and creative team reconvened to revive the show to great acclaim (see selections here). The simplicity of the show, where the songs do almost all the talking, and the immortal freshness of the music, as well as the incendiary performances made one reviewer conclude “When Fats Waller in on Broadway, the night and the world are always young.” The exuberance of the performance was captured in its choreography and Hirscheld’s drawing. “When Andre De Shield and Charlaine Woodward swing their limbs on “How Ya Baby,” wrote the Times in their opening night review, “their elbows and outstretched hands fly at splayed, stylized angles, as if the couple were leaping off a Depression dance hall poster; they are liberated spirits from another time.”

Charles Dutton in THE PIANO LESSONInk on board, 1990

August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama, The Piano Lesson tells the story of a brother and sister in 1936 Pittsburgh who are at odds over selling the family heirloom, a piano with carvings of the family’s suffering. Dutton’s character is force of nature onstage: a human cyclone who sows noise, confusion and trouble wherever he goes. Hirschfeld drew Dutton in the one scene, toward the end of Act I, that Dutton is for any extended period essentially motionless. He sits at the kitchen table and listens, infinitely stubborn and sad, as his uncle relates the history of the piano and the long difficult journey it took. At the curtain call on opening night, Dutton flashed back 14 years to another journey: his debut as an actor while still a convict in a Maryland prison for homicide and other crimes. An anthology of black playwrights he read in solitary inspired him to ask the prison to start a drama group. Once on stage, he realized he had found his calling. After he was released he eventually won a scholarship to the Yale School of Drama. As he stood on stage that night he thought, “I’ve come a long way.” Dutton and most of the original cast’s performance was captured in a television adaptation of the play in 1995. 

HAVING OUR SAY with Mary Alice and Gloria FosterInk on board, 1995

“One of the most provocative and entertaining family plays to reach Broadway in a long time has a cast of two, a single set, and time span of something less than two and half hours,” wrote Vincent Canby in his opening night review of Having Our Say. “Yet it contains dozens of characters, represents six generations and embraces nearly 200 years of Black American life, which is also white American life.” Emily Mann wrote the 1995 stage adaptation of the book of the same name that introduces audiences to Sadie and Bessie Delany, two civil rights pioneers who were born in the late 19th century to a former slave. It chronicles the story of their well-lived lives with wit and wisdom and became a surprise hit, earning three Tony nominations. This image was used on the poster for the Broadway production, the last of more than 50 posters Hirschfeld created for shows over seven decades.

Audra McDonald and Anthony Crivello in MARIE CHRISTINEInk on board, 1999

Audra McDonald is a legend in her own time. She has won six Tony Awards, more performance wins than any other performer, and is the only person to win all four acting categories. She is at home in operas and dramas as she is in musicals, and she is known for defying racial typecasting. Of her groundbreaking work in encouraging diversity in musical theatre casting, she said, "I refuse to be stereotyped. If I think I am right for a role I will go for it in whatever way I can. I refuse to say no to myself. I can't control what a producer will do or say but I can at least put myself out there." In 1999, Michael John LaChiusa wrote the Medea-like heroine of Marie Christine for McDonald. The title character was based in part on the historical figure of Marie Laveau. Set in 1890s New Orleans and then 5 years later in Chicago; the story uses elements of voodoo rituals and practices. Ben Brantley in his opening night review announced, “there is clearly sorcery at work.” You can see a scene from its final performance here,

Original drawing available for sale. Price list available on request.

 

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Presented by the Al Hirschfeld Foundation ©2020