MLK: Black Stories on Broadway Through the Decades (Part 1)

Monday, January 16 marks Martin Luther King, Jr. Day across the United States.

By Jordan Levinson

Monday, January 16 marks Martin Luther King, Jr. Day across the United States. One of the leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, King challenged segregation through nonviolent protests and civil disobedience. Notably, he organized the March on Washington in August 1963, which culminated in his “I Have a Dream” speech. In it, King spoke of his “dream”: that one day, people would be judged by personal qualities — the “content of their character” — rather than the color of their skin. The speech had tremendous effects: it put pressure on then-President John F. Kennedy and his administration to advance civil rights legislation through Congress; it also played a major role in King being named TIME Magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1963. The following year, he became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. 

We would like to pay tribute to King with a singular work from each decade beginning in the 1950s up until today, highlighting major Black plays on Broadway:

Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”

In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry became the first Black female author to have a work represented on Broadway, as her A Raisin in the Sun premiered in March at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The story follows the Younger family and their experiences in a Caucasian-heavy neighborhood in south Chicago; following the death of the father figure, the family tries to improve their financial standing with an insurance payout. Throughout the play, the family deals with experiences of racism, assimilation, and housing discrimination. A Raisin in the Sun was nominated for 4 Tonys, including Best Play. It has been revived on Broadway twice as of this writing, and it has spawned a film adaptation (starring its original leading man, Sidney Poitier), a musical version (the Tony-winning Best Musical Raisin), and a stage prequel told from the perspective of the family that sold their house to the Youngers (Clybourne Park, which won the 2012 Tony for Best Play).

Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis in “Purlie Victorious”

Ossie Davis — who replaced Poitier during A Raisin in the Sun’s original run— had a play of his own, Purlie Victorious, reach the Broadway stage in 1961, playing the Cort Theatre (now the James Earl Jones). The New York Times greeted Purlie Victorious with great praise, calling it “marvelously exhilarating.” “The play tells the story of Purlie Victorious Judson, a joyous, robust preacher,” the Times explained, adding, “it won’t let you wipe that grin off your face.” The New York Herald Tribune also raved, calling the play “a bucketful of bristling laughs” with “wild, outrageous fantasy.” Like A Raisin in the Sun, Purlie Victorious was adapted into a movie (under the title “Gone Are the Days!”), and later it “got life” as the musical Purlie, which won lead actor and featured actress Tonys for Cleavon Little and Melba Moore. The play is set to receive new life soon, as a revival is currently in development and preparing for a Broadway bow in the 2023-24 season. 

Joseph A Walker’s “The River Niger”

On March 27, 1973, The River Niger arrived at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (now the Lena Horne) after a celebrated Off-Broadway run that saved its home — the Negro Ensemble Company — from devastating financial difficulty. The tale of a family and the unrest they face when their son returns to their Harlem home after a stint in the Air Force, Joseph A. Walker’s work won the 1974 Tony for Best Play — the first Black play to accomplish that feat. The River Niger was filmed in 1976; it starred James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. 

August Wilson’s “Fences”

Known as “the theater’s poet of Black America,” August Wilson is best known for the ten plays that make up his Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicles the Black experience and African American heritage in the 20th century. The sixth play in the cycle, Fences, premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985, before a Broadway production took up space at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) in 1987. Fences is the story of Troy Maxson, who is a garbage collector but once had tremendous upside as a baseball player in the late 1950s. His childhood circumstances led him to prison, and when he got released, he met his wife and started a family; he struggles to provide for them throughout. The show won 4 Tonys, including Best Play, and its 2010 Broadway revival (with Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Stephen McKinley Henderson) picked up 3 more. Washington and Davis reunited on a film adaptation that gave both Oscar nominations; it was also nominated for Best Picture.

Above, MLK with the cast of “Purlie Victorious” after their 100th Broadway performance

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