Fans of live theater rejoice as Broadway returns from its year-and-a-half-long COVID-19 hiatus with a select group of new plays scheduled through the end of the year — all seven of which are by Black writers.
Theatre’s biggest stage will feature a wide spectrum of Black stories, and with themes ranging from laugh-out-loud comedies to powerful tales of overcoming, this fall’s lineup has something for everyone.
According to thegrio.com, of these seven playwrights, five will be seeing their stories told on the Broadway stage for the first time, such as Douglas Lyons, whose new play Chicken & Biscuits will also feature the youngest Black director in Broadway’s 250+ year history, 27-year-old Zhailon Levingston.
The show’s run in Queens Theatre last year was abruptly interrupted by the pandemic after just a few showings, but is set to return to Circle in the Square Theatre with previews beginning September 23.
Lyons said the pandemic break contributed to Broadway’s attention to Black stories.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Written three years ago in 2018, Lyons’ play is relatively new compared to some productions that took decades to get their due, such as Trouble In Mind written in 1955 by the late Alice Childress, or Lackawanna Blues, written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson in 2001.
While Lyons expressed optimism that this all-Black lineup may reflect progress in an area that has been a long-discussed issue throughout Broadway’s history, he and others say they will monitor how long the focus on representation and promoting Black stories will be sustained.
The push to amplify Black stories and storytellers on Broadway has been the mission of organizations like Broadway Black. The organization founded by Drew Shade is dedicated to “highlighting the achievements” of Black playwrights, directors, and actors.
Shade echoed Lyons’ sentiments about celebrating the success of this fall’s lineup while emphasizing the importance of keeping the momentum going.
“Seven Black shows coming to Broadway — it’s unprecedented,” Shade said. “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.”
Also working to elevate Black representation in theatre is the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, a community of self-described “artivists” committed to holding theaters accountable for equitable representation, co-founded by Britton Smith.
Smith said this fall’s Broadway productions — specifically those by Black playwrights — are under increased pressure to sell tickets as the first group of shows following the pandemic.
“Most shows on Broadway don’t do well,” Smith said. “There are some shows that have incredible impact and an incredible story that we should consider, but they don’t always make the most money.”
Kicking off the fall season is Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s three-person play Pass Over, and without the benefit of watching other productions go before theirs, Nwandu said going first may come with increased scrutiny.
“We are the first show back; everybody’s looking at us,” Nwandu said. “People are looking at the August (Theatre), at Broadway: ‘What are you guys doing? How are you going to handle this moment?’”
Regardless, Nwandu said, she and her crew will not back away from the challenge.
“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,” she said.