Skip to main content

FunTimes Magazine

Blacks on Broadway: A Legacy of Triumph and Transformation

Feb 16, 2024 03:00PM ● By Anand Subramanian

Scene from the play A Raisin in the Sun, with actors Claudia McNeil (Lena Younger) and Sidney Poitier (Walter Younger). Public Domain

From minstrel shows to Pulitzer Prize-winning productions, the story of Blacks on Broadway is one of resilience, artistry, and ongoing impact. It's a narrative woven with struggle and celebration, reflecting the complexities of African American history and its vibrant expression on the Great White Way.

Early Beginnings: Minstrel Shows and Stereotypes

Ira Aldridge as Aaron. Public Domain

The 19th century saw the emergence of "blackface" performances, where white actors donned exaggerated makeup and caricatured Black mannerisms for entertainment. Though offensive and exploitative, these shows offered some Black performers opportunities, albeit under degrading conditions. Trailblazers like Ira Aldridge challenged these limitations, becoming the first Black actor to perform Shakespeare in Europe.

 Bert Williams (Public Domain), Sissieretta Jones (Public Domain), Ethel Waters (Public Domain). 

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of Black vaudeville performers, who injected humor, music, and social commentary into their acts. These pioneers, including Bert Williams, Sissieretta Jones, and Ethel Waters, challenged stereotypes and paved the way for the development of authentic Black stories on Broadway.

The Civil Rights Movement and Beyond: Pushing for Progress

Scene from "A Raisin in the Sun" Public Domain

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s further propelled Black voices to the forefront of Broadway. Plays like Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" (1959) and James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner" (1964) tackled complex themes of racial injustice and identity, sparking meaningful conversations and challenging audiences.


 Poster for "The Wiz" Fair Use

The 70s and 80s saw the rise of "Black musicals," which celebrated Black culture and history. Shows like "The Wiz" (1975) and "Dreamgirls" (1981) achieved mainstream success, showcasing the talent and stories of Black artists.

Contemporary Voices: Diversity, Innovation, and Global Impact

Cast of "Hamilton" performing at the White House. Public Domain

Today, Black artists continue to shape the landscape of Broadway with diverse perspectives and innovative storytelling. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Sweat" (2017) by Lynn Nottage to the critically acclaimed "Slave Play" (2018) by Tarell Alvin McCraney, contemporary productions explore a wide range of Black experiences, pushing boundaries and challenging audiences.

Black playwrights, directors, actors, and producers are also finding success on international stages. Shows like "Hamilton" (2015), with its diverse cast and reimagining of American history, have resonated globally, demonstrating the universal appeal of Black stories.

Challenges and Opportunities: Looking Ahead

Despite the progress made, challenges remain. Broadway continues to grapple with issues of diversity, inclusion, and representation. Black artists still face underrepresentation in both on-stage and behind-the-scenes roles.

However, there is a growing movement for change. Initiatives like Black Theatre United and Broadway Advocacy Coalition are working to create more equitable opportunities for Black artists. 

The journey of Blacks on Broadway is a testament to their resilience, creativity, and unwavering commitment to telling their stories. From navigating the limitations of early theatre to pushing boundaries and achieving global recognition, Black artists have left an indelible mark on American theatre. As we look toward the future, it is clear that Black excellence will continue to illuminate the stages of Broadway, inspiring new generations of artists and audiences alike.

Read also:

Celebrating Diversity Top Movies by African American Filmmakers in the Criterion Collection

Celebrating Diversity: Top Movies by African American Filmmakers in the Criterion Collection

These filmmakers have crafted exceptional movies and left an indelible mark on the world of cinema. Read More » 




Black British actors have significantly contributed to the movie industry and inspired lives through their various roles and have gone further to contribute to the global stage. Read More » 


How British theatre censorship laws have inadvertently created a rich archive of Black history

How British theatre censorship laws have inadvertently created a rich archive of Black history

The licensing of plays has inadvertently produced an extensive historical archive of surveillance and censorship. This includes records of early Black theatre-making, at a time when the B... Read More » 


 Anand Subramanian is a freelance photographer and content writer based out of Tamil Nadu, India. Having a background in Engineering always made him curious about life on the other side of the spectrum. He leapt forward towards the Photography life and never looked back. Specializing in Documentary and  Portrait photography gave him an up-close and personal view into the complexities of human beings and those experiences helped him branch out from visual to words. Today he is mentoring passionate photographers and writing about the different dimensions of the art world.

Read more from Anand Subramanian:

Gumball Machine Poetry and a Philly Soul LindoYess Sweet Treats for the Mind

Gumball Machine Poetry and a Philly Soul: LindoYes's Sweet Treats for the Mind

In the artistic streets of Philadelphia, a different kind of treat is being dished out: tiny bursts of poetry and unexpected solace, courtesy of artist-activist LindoYes and his "Gumball ... Read More » 


2023 Year of the African Lens - Cinema Reframed Stories Amplified

2023: Year of the African Lens - Cinema Reframed, Stories Amplified

2023 proved a turning point, where African cinema took center stage, reframing the cinematic landscape and amplifying untold stories with vibrancy and audacity. Read More » 


A Culinary Journey Through Time A Look at Black-Owned Restaurants in Philadelphia

A Culinary Journey Through Time: A Look at Black-Owned Restaurants in Philadelphia

Throughout the 20th century, Black-owned restaurants in Philadelphia continued to evolve and adapt, reflecting the changing social and political landscape Read More »