The Great White Way will look a lot less white this fall.
For the past year, the Broadway community has had two pressing questions on its mind. The first was when theater on Broadway would be possible again at all, and under what conditions. The second was whether, when Broadway did return, it would address major concerns about racial representation and inequity that had been building for years but gained urgency and strength during the Black Lives Matter protests that galvanized much of the country in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder.
The first question has been answered: Broadway shows will open or reopen on a staggered schedule through December, and tickets are already on sale for most of them. And as the picture of the upcoming season comes into focus, it seems that at least some progress is being made on the second front as well. Seven new productions of plays are scheduled to begin in 2021—and all seven of those plays are by Black playwrights.
All but two of these Black playwrights are making their Broadway debuts as writers, and four of them are women. The plays themselves cover wide territory from comedy to memoir to social drama. Some are new works, some are revivals, a few fall somewhere in between; all four of Broadway's major nonprofits—Manhattan Theatre Club, Second Stage, the Roundabout and Lincoln Center—are involved in presenting them, alongside several commercial producers. (The fall slate also includes three plays, by white writers, that were already running in 2020: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Lehman Brothers, the last of which was in previews when the shutdown struck.)
The unprecedented attention to Black voices in the fall this year testifies to the work and effectiveness of groups like the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and Broadway Black in moving the cultural conversation forward. It seems clear that Broadway has been listening. But this is not, of course, the end of the discussion. There are still countless worthy theater works with Black content that have not yet been produced on Broadway, including the last two winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Michael R. Jackson's A Strange Loop and Katori Hall's The Hot Wing King. And although the all-Black slate of 2021 sends a positive collective statement, it is a temporary one: The five plays that have been scheduled for the spring so far, all holdovers from the foreshortened 2020 season, are by nonblack writers.
What's more, this fall may be a relatively difficult time to sell tickets, even for Broadway's most popular and longest-running shows: Tourism, which has driven sales for years, is likely to still be depressed. Some industry insiders are privately concerned that if this fall's plays are not financially successful—even if Broadway sales are down across the board—it may reinforce the perception that Black shows lack commercial legs. That's all the more reason to keep an eye out for these plays if you can. You won't just be supporting Broadway on its journey back to health—you'll be helping it find new pathways there.
Here are the seven plays by Black writers that are scheduled to run in 2021, in order of when they begin:
Pass Over: Two young black men hang out on a street corner and dream of a promised land in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's play, which fuses elements of the Exodus story and Waiting for Godot. The play made its NYC premiere in 2018 at Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow space—where we described it as "an intimate political play that grapples with epic themes and is likely to leave you shaken"—and a version filmed by Spike Lee was released that year. Now that production, directed by Dayna Taymor, moves to Broadway with its original cast of three: Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood and Gabriel Ebert. August Wilson Theatre. Aug 4–Oct 10. Buy tickets here.
Lackawanna Blues: Ruben Santiago-Hudson's autobiographical solo show, which he performed at the Public Theater back in 2001, pays fond tribute to the formidable woman who raised him in upstate New York in the 1960s. Santiago-Hudson directs and plays some 20 different characters in the play's Broadway premiere; guitarist Junior Mack joins him onstage to play live original music by Bill Sims, Jr. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Starts Sept 14. Tickets go on sale Aug 10.
Chicken and Biscuits: Skeletons come tumbling out of the casket at the funeral of the patriarch of a squabbling African-American family in this new comedy by Douglas Lyons. Zhailon Levingston, who directed the world premiere at Queens Theatre last year—whose run was cut short by the shutdown—returns to helm the Broadway transfer, with a new cast that includes Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess) and Michael Urie (Torch Song). Circle in the Square, Sept 23–Jan 2. Buy tickets here.
Thoughts of a Colored Man: Playwright and slam poet Keenan Scott II sheds theatrical light on Black men in a group portrait of seven Brooklyn denizens with such symbolic names as Passion, Depression, Wisdom and Anger. After a successful premiere at Syracuse Stage in 2019, the show hits Broadway in a production directed by Steve H. Broadnax III (The Hot Wing King) and starring Keith David, Bryan Terrell Clark, Da’Vinchi, Luke James, Forrest McClendon, Tristan “Mack” Wilds and Pose heartthrob Dyllón Burnside. John Golden Theatre. Starts Oct 1. Buy tickets here.
Trouble in Mind: Alice Childress's Obie-winning 1955 drama, about a Black actress who challenges stereotypes while rehearsing a liberal-minded anti-lynching play, never made it to the Great White Way in its first go-around. Now it makes its overdue Broadway debut at the Roundabout, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright (Motown the Musical). The central role is played by LaChanze (The Color Purple). American Airlines Theatre. Oct 29–Jan 9. Buy tickets here.
Clyde's: Playwright Lynn Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey, whose previous collaborations include the Pulitzer Prize–winning Ruined and Sweat, team up again for a new work about a truck-stop sandwich stop staffed by ex-cons trying to get their lives together—and create the perfect snack. Given Nottage and Whoriskey's track record, this will be one to watch out for. The cast for this production at Second Stage's Broadway flagship space includes Uzo Aduba, Ron Cephas Jones, Reza Salazar and Kara Young. Helen Hayes Theatre, Nov 3–Jan 26. Buy tickets here.
Skeleton Crew: In Dominique Morisseau's meaty drama, firmly based in the lives and evocative language of its characters, four workers at a dying auto-parts plant are torn are torn between strategies of survival: the every-man-for-himself ethos of American individualism versus the solidarity of unions, friends and chosen families. Five years after its NYC premiere at the Atlantic's Stage 2, Skeleton Crew comes to Broadway in a new production starring Phylicia Rashad and directed by the busy Ruben Santiago-Hudson for Manhattan Theatre Club. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Starts Dec 21. Tickets go on sale Sept 9.