jakub | April 3, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | This Month in Theatre History

Theresa Merritt in ‘Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1984. (Photo by William B. Carter)

1879 (145 years ago)

Urlina, African Princess, a musical comedy starring the Hyers sisters (Anna Madah and Emma Louise), closed at the Bush Street Theatre in San Francisco after a two-week run. The pair began their successful career as a performing duo in 1867 when they were just 10 and 12 years old. By the time of the Urlina premiere, they were the stars of their own all-Black theatre troupe known as the Hyers Sisters Combination. According to Jocelyn L. Buckner, Urlina was “the first known African American play set in Africa,” which “suited the Hyers’s career-long mission to encourage racial uplift and pride.” A San Francisco Pacific Appeal review called the production “splendidly mounted” and dubbed the sisters “first-class artists.” The troupe then included Urlina in their repertoire on their tours across the United States and Canada in the 1880s.

1924 (100 years ago)

Sheldon Harnick. (Photo by David Gordon)

Lyricist Sheldon Harnick was born in Chicago on April 30. Harnick was best known for his collaborations with composer Jerry Bock on musicals such as Fiorello! (1959), She Loves Me (1963),and Fiddler on the Roof (1964), winning a Pulitzer and three Tony awards over the course of his decades-long career. Harnick continued to work into his 90s, writing the libretto for a one-act opera, Lady Bird: First Lady of the Land, that premiered in Texas in 2016. He teased The New York Times in a November 2015 interview that he was working on another project, adding, “I won’t tell you what idea I have, because you’ll steal it.” Harnick died on June 23, 2023.

1939 (85 years ago)

Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of Sing for Your Supper” at the Adelphi Theatre. (Art by Aida McKenzie, from Library of Congress)

The Federal Theatre Project’s production of the musical revue Sing For Your Supper opened at the Adelphi Theatre in New York City on April 24 after 18 months of rehearsals. The production was hampered by disagreements among members of the creative team, the loss of actors to commercial theatre work, and close scrutiny from government officials wary of supposed communist messaging. Women’s Wear Daily reported after the eventual premiere, “So many writers and composers have furnished material for this revue that it would take a half-column of space to publish their names.” The musical first went into rehearsal with a cast of 175, but Works Progress Administration funding cuts brought the cast down to 125 by the time it opened; newspapers at the time noted the integration of Black and white performers onstage. The show closed in June 1939 following the termination of all Congressional funds for the Federal Theatre Project.

1969 (55 years ago)

Portrait of Vinette Carroll, Nov. 6, 1979. (Photo from the UCLA Library Special Collections)

Playwright, director, and actor Vinnette Carroll had a busy month this year. On April 24, But Never Jam Today premiered at the Black Expo festival in New York City. Carroll conceived and directed this musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; she would later go on to direct the 1979 Broadway production. On April 29, a production of her gospel musical Trumpets of the Lord, based on James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones (1927), opened on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. The musical originally premiered in December 1963 at the Astor Place Playhouse, produced by Theodore Mann. Mann directed the 1969 Broadway production, which retained most of the original cast, including Theresa Merritt and Cicely Tyson.

1984 (40 years ago)

Charles S. Dutton, Leonard Jackson, Robert Judd, Theresa Merritt, and Jon Seneca in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1984. (Photo by William B. Carter)

August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre on April 3. This was the first fully professional production of any of Wilson’s plays, initiating his prolific career. Directed by Lloyd Richards, who would become one of Wilson’s frequent collaborators, the play transferred to the Cort Theatre on Broadway in October that year and earned a 1985 Tony nomination for Best Play. The production starred Theresa Merritt as Ma Rainey and Charles Dutton as the trumpeter Levee; Dutton would go on to reprise his role in the 2003 Broadway revival. In November 2020, Netflix released a film adaptation of the play starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, in his final movie appearance.

1994 (30 years ago)

Anna Deavere Smith in ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.’ (Photo by Jay Thompson)

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre on April 17. Originally commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum, Anna Deavere Smith wrote and performed the one-woman play. Smith conducted over 300 interviews during her research for the play on the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of police officers charged with assaulting Rodney King. The production featured Smith’s signature verbatim theatre style as she used direct interview excerpts as the basis for the play’s monologues and played all the characters herself. The production received Tony Award nominations for Best Play and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for Smith, who also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance for the second year in a row. PBS produced a film adaptation starring Smith in 2000.

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