On The Aisle – 2009: A Year in Review in Black Theater

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2009 was an absolutely phenomenal year for Blacks in theater from off-Broadway to Broadway. If you came by the way of Brooklyn, you got to enjoy the magnificent writing of Jackie Alexander, as the Billie Holiday Theatre presented, The High Priestess of Dark Alley with an all-Black cast. A superb production of The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson played at the Public Theatre. It featured a mixed cast which was very talented. It was like watching an expose’ on how the FBI and the Ku Klux Klan worked against Blacks during the Civil Rights Movement down South.
A show that features another mixed cast is on Broadway and is going strong at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, that show is HAIR and it is definitely worth experiencing. When you walk in the theatre and take a seat you are made a part of the Tribe of hippies who believe in free love, flowing drugs and long hair. This show is a blast! Although the show has since closed, the revival of Guys and Dolls on Broadway that starred Titus Burgess in the role of Nicely Nicely Johnson was a pleasure to watch. Burgess rocked the house when he did the character’s signature number “You’re Rocking The Boat.”
When you go to the theater it is truly a gift when you get to see a dramatic production that teaches you about an injustice that Black people have suffered. It shares their trials, but also the fact that they managed to survive. That is the kind of inspiration and heartfelt message that came across to audiences as they were stunned and captivated, while watching Ruined, a drama by Lynn Nottage that played at the New York City Center.  The play shared the true stories of women who had been victimized by soldiers in war torn Democratic Republic of Congo. As you walked around the theatre pictures of actual women Nottage interviewed were displayed on the walls. The play also got Nottage her due, as she received the Pulitzer Prize for it in 2009.
On the lighter side of entertainment, audiences were almost falling out of their chairs onto the floor of the Beacon Theatre when Tyler Perry’s The Marriage Counselor was performed. Perry just has a way with words that make them so down to earth, but hilarious at the same time. The characters he creates remind one of someone you might actually know. His stories are hilarious, but also always have a bit of a religious aspect to them. The marriage counselor’s story reminds one of the expression “physician heal thyself.” It was incredible to watch the revival of August Wilson’s drama Joe Turner’s Come And Gone at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. It was presented by Lincoln Center and spotlighted the talents of a tremendous, mainly Black cast. In fact, Roger Robinson won the Tony this year for his role.
Tony Award-winner Phylicia Rashad returned to Broadway as Violet Weston in Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play August Osage County. The comedy/drama played at the Music Box Theatre, and looked at the dysfunctional life of a pill-popping, sharp-tongued mother of three.
Some wonderful shows that had a limited life were Pure Confidence and a revival of The Wiz. Both these shows were wonderful. The first looked at the life story of a slave, who was also a jockey and won races easily. The other production gave Ashanti Singer her chance to debut on stage and it was a magnificent show.
A milestone was reached withDavid Lamb’s Platanos & Collard Greens as it celebrated its sixth year at the Florence Guild Hall on 59th St. The funny production looks at relationships between Blacks and Latinos and discloses stereotypes they have about each other.
Roger Guenvere Smith performed his one-man Frederick Douglass Now at the Irish Arts Center. The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center premiered Broke-ology, a play by African-American playwright Nathan Louis Jackson. The drama featured an all-Black cast and showed how two brothers struggled over the decision of how to take care of an ill father. FELA! made its explosive Broadway debut and celebrates the life, music and political struggles of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the father of the Afrobeat. This musical is at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre at W. 49th St.
Some other wonderful shows that happened in 2009 was Sing Harlem Sing at the Dempsey Theatre on W. 127th St. There was River Crosses Rivers-Short Plays by Women of Color at the Castillo Theatre and was presented by New Federal Theatre. It featured plays by Lynn Nottage, Ruby Dee, P.J. Gibson, Naveen Bahar Choudhury, Cori Thomas and Bridgette Wimberly. A new original Broadway musical is Memphis at the Shubert Theatre on W 44th St.  Dreamgirls came to the Apollo Theatre before going on tour. Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy made its New York premiere and it was moving to watch. A comedy/drama, Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts played at the Music Box Theatre and served as the Broadway debut vehicle for young African-American actor Jon Michael Hill. Finian’s Rainbow opened on Broadway and is still playing featuring Chuck Cooper. Ragtime has been revived and is being brilliantly presented at the Neil Simon Theatre.
In 2010, let me just mention some of the names that will be on Broadway, Denzel Washington, Vanessa Williams, Norm Lewis, Ron Cephas Jones and Antony Mackie.

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