Remembering August Wilson and African-Americans’ Contributions to Broadway

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 20: (L-R) Series executive producer Michael Kantor, actress Phylicia Rashad, filmmaker Sam Pollard and executive producer Darryl Ford Williams speak onstage during the ‘AMERICAN MASTERS ”August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand”’ panel discussion at the PBS Network portion of the Television Critics Association press tour at Langham Hotel on January 20, 2015 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA – JANUARY 20: (L-R) Series executive producer Michael Kantor, actress Phylicia Rashad, filmmaker Sam Pollard and executive producer Darryl Ford Williams speak onstage during the ‘AMERICAN MASTERS ”August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand”’ panel discussion at the PBS Network portion of the Television Critics Association press tour at Langham Hotel on January 20, 2015 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Is Black History Month too celebratory an occasion to hear complaints about the few black actors in major roles on Broadway right now?

Is this too commemorative a time to notice the scarcity of black people, compared with other seasons, this side of “The Lion King” and “Aladdin”? Should we ignore the reality that, when “You Can’t Take It With You,” nontraditionally cast with James Earl Jones, closes next week, the industry nicknamed the “Great White Way” so far this season has no major black casting?

Ah, well. Although the country is roiling in race relations again and the Oscars are being bashed for denying acting and directing nominations for “Selma,” we do have two important, even festive projects – a magnificent PBS documentary on the late playwright August Wilson and a handsome book about African-Americans on Broadway – timed to honor the theme that falls in our shortest month.

But first, a clarification on that “Great White way” cliche. As we are reminded in Stewart F. Lane’s informative, beautifully illustrated new book, “Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way,” (Square One Publishers, 288 pages, $39.95), Broadway is not saddled with that name because, as late as the 1930s, black people were only allowed to sit in Broadway balconies, when permitted to enter at all.

In fact, the description has stuck since the 1890s, when a strip of Broadway was one of the first streets to be fully lit with electric lights. Still, it is hard not to hear a little irony each time Lane, a Broadway producer and theater co-owner, uses it in his coffee-table-size contribution to theater history.

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Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution | Linda Winer

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