Broadway is making a comeback this fall after a year and a half of empty stages and theaters, and the majority of its 2021 fall lineup features shows by Black writers.
Shows are scheduled to begin as early as next month, and audiences can look forward to seeing old favorites and plays that were forced to close early due to the pandemic, as well as new productions that have yet to grace the stage. Currently, seven of the new plays are written by Black playwrights.
For some, a Broadway debut
Five of the seven new plays are written by playwrights who will be seeing their work performed on the Broadway stage for the first time, including Douglas Lyons, writer of Chicken & Biscuits, which was forced to end its run in Queens Theater last year because of the pandemic. His comedic play also features Broadway’s youngest Black director, 27-year-old Zhailon Levingston.
“I think people are going to be refreshed to be back in the theater, but also refreshed with the stories they’re getting in the theater,” says Levingston. “There’s a whole generation of artists that have not been seen, and I feel like this Covid thing stopped the world and gave Broadway no excuse to not see us.”
Broadway’s long-term commitment to Black stories
Lyons is encouraged by the representation reflected in the lineup, but he and others will be sure to pay attention to Broadway’s next moves when it comes to elevating Black voices and stories on stage.
Drew Shade, founder and creative director of Broadway Black, an organization that puts a spotlight on Black achievements in theater, is hopeful but wonders whether Broadway will continue along with this path long-term. So far, none of the five plays that are already scheduled for 2022 are written by Black writers.
However, Shade does acknowledge that this is a sign of progress. “Seven Black shows coming to Broadway—it’s unprecedented. It’s what we would like to see, especially after the racial reckoning we’ve had in this society over the past year, and more specifically in the theater industry. But we also have to be realistic about the placement of the shows. We have to be realistic about what this may mean for Black artists going forward.”
The difficulties of opening a Broadway show during the pandemic
The precarious state of the pandemic presents a difficult ticketing challenge. Although it may feel as though we are emerging from the latest wave of the pandemic, the Delta variant is on the rise and tourism remains low, especially in dense cities like New York.
Those who put on a play are under extreme pressure to have immediate financial success, especially for new Black-written plays. Otherwise, there is a great risk of being quickly shut down and shut out.
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s play Pass Over, is the first to come back, and she already feels the pressure. The play is to reopen the August Wilson Theater for the first time since the venue hosted Mean Girls.
“We are the first show back; everybody’s looking at us,” she says. “People are looking at the August (Theater), at Broadway: ‘What are you guys doing? How are you going to handle this moment?’”
Despite the external pressures, Nwandu says that she is ready to embrace this historic moment. “Our responsibility is to just meet that moment with as much authenticity, as much kindness, as much honesty, and as much rigor to be truth-tellers.”
The Black-written plays in order of opening date:
- Pass Over, written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu and directed by Danya Taymor.
- Chicken & Biscuits, written by Douglas Lyons and directed by Zhailon Levingston.
- Lackawanna Blues, written and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
- Thoughts of a Colored Man, written by Kenan Scott II and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III.
- Trouble in Mind, written by Alice Childress and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.
- Clyde’s, written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whoriskey.
- Skeleton Crew, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.