jakub | February 7, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | This Month in Theatre History

Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke in ‘Death of a Salesman' at the Hudson Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

1904 (120 years ago)

Portrait of Bert Williams and George Walker. (Photo from NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

In Dahomey, the popular musical featuring the famous comedic duo of George Walker and Bert Williams, closed a nine-month run at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London on Feb. 13. According to James V. Hatch and Ted Shine’s Black Theatre USA, it was “the first African American show that synthesized successfully the various genres of American musical theatre popularized at the beginning of the 20th century: minstrelsy, vaudeville, comic opera, and musical comedy.” The show’s tour of England came amid a period in which Walker and Williams performed in productions of the musical almost continuously across the U.S. and Europe from 1902 to 1905. The first full-length all-Black musical to run on Broadway, the show continued to make history in its touring version, becoming the first Black musical to give a command performance for a British monarch, for King Edward at Windsor Castle, and again at Buckingham Palace for his grandson’s ninth birthday in June 1903.

1934 (90 years ago)

The original cast of ‘Four Saints in Three Acts,’ onstage at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 1934. (Photo by Harold Swahn)

Four Saints in Three Acts premiered at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. Composed by Virgil Thomson and directed by John Houseman, the opera had a libretto, indeed structured in four acts, by Gertrude Stein, written in her signature avant-garde style, which discarded clarity of narrative in favor of linguistic exploration. The production then opened on Broadway at the 44th Street Theatre on Feb. 20 and ran for 48 performances. According to Bernard L. Peterson, Jr.’s A Century of Musicals in Black and White, it was “the most controversial musical of the 1934 season, possibly because its libretto was totally incomprehensible to most critics and members of the audience, and possibly because of the novelty of an all-Black cast.” Thomson insisted on casting only Black performers in the production, which also featured a choir led by noted choral director Eva Jessye.

1949 (75 years ago)

On Feb. 10, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller opened on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre. Directed by Elia Kazan and starring Lee Cobb as Willy Loman, the production ran for 742 performances, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Director and Best Play, and the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Miller. Fifty years to the day after the initial premiere, a revival with Brian Dennehy in the lead role opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on February 10, 1999. The titular salesman has been played by many celebrated male actors in the five total Broadway revivals, including George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Dennehy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Wendell Pierce. The 2022 revival starring Pierce marked the first time the Loman family has been played by Black actors on a Broadway stage.

1964 (60 years ago)

Production photo from ‘Funnyhouse of a Negro,’ 1964. (Photo by Frederick Eberstadt)

Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro closed its Off-Broadway run at the East End Theatre on Feb. 9 after 46 performances. A surrealist exploration of racial identity, the avant-garde one-act would go on to win a 1964 Obie Award for Distinguished Play. Billie Allen, who starred as Sarah in the Off-Broadway production, would go on to direct productions of the play at the Tisch School of the Arts in 1984 and the Classical Theatre of Harlem in 2006. Allen said of Kennedy’s influence, “Adrienne has informed everyone in the theatre—playwrights, actors, designers–—that we no longer have to think inside of a box.”

1969 (55 years ago)

Poster for the Committee Theater production.

Buck White, a musical by composer, lyricist, singer, and playwright Oscar Brown Jr., premiered in San Francisco at the Committee Theatre on Feb. 11. An adaptation of the play Big Time Buck White by Joseph Dolan Tuoti, the musical starred Brown as Buck, the charismatic Black militant leader of the Beautiful Alleluia Days (BAD) organization. The musical transferred to Broadway for a run at the George Abbott Theater later that year, with Muhammad Ali taking over the title role. Brown and his wife, Jean Pace, co-directed the Broadway production, which closed just four days after its official opening.

1979 (45 years ago)

Eartha Kitt in costume from ‘Timbuktu!’ (Photo by Kenn Duncan)

The first touring production of Timbuktu! closed at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles on Feb. 11. An adaptation of Kismet, the musical was directed, choreographed, and costume designed by Geoffrey Holder, who had received two Tony Awards for his work on The Wiz in 1975. Holder was the first Black man to even be nominated for Best Direction of a Musical or Best Costume Design. Timbuktu! starred famed actor and singer Eartha Kitt as Shaleem-La-Lume for the entirety of its five-month tour, which also stopped in Detroit, Chicago, and San Diego after she originated the role in the 1978 Broadway production at the Mark Hellinger Theatre.

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