Black History Month
Black theater flourished during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s. After World War II, councils were organized to abolish the use of racial stereotypes in theater and to push black playwrights into the mainstream. Many black women have been recognized with Tony awards for achievement in live Broadway theater.
Lorraine Hansberry was an American playwright whose A Raisin in the Sun (1959) was the first drama by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. The play highlighted racial segregation in Chicago, something Hansberry’s family had personal experience with while she was growing up. In 1950, she moved to New York City to attend The New School and pursue her career as a writer. She soon moved to Harlem and became involved in activist struggles, including the fight against evictions. She was only 29 years old when A Raisin in the Sun was first performed on Broadway. Over the next two years, the play was translated into 35 languages and performed all over the world. She died at the age of 34 from an aggressive strain of pancreatic cancer. Her play was nominated for a Tony award for Best Play in 1960, and a musical based on the play won Best Musical in 1973, after her death.
Jennifer Holliday was a Broadway actress who landed the role of Effie in the 1981 production of Dreamgirls at the age of 21. She remained with the show for four years after it opened and was widely acclaimed. In 1982, she won many awards for this performance, including the Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, a Grammy for her recorded version of one of the musical’s songs, and Drama Desk and Theater World awards for her performance. After Dreamgirls, she continued to have success as a recording artist, with several songs at the top of the Billboard R&B Singles chart. Holliday is popular with LGBT events and fundraisers and has made many appearances at Pride events. This January, to the excitement of her many fans, Holliday released her first album since 1991.
Rhonda LaChanze Sapp
Rhonda LaChanze Sapp, known professionally as LaChanze, is best known for her performance as Celie in The Color Purple, for which she won a Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Her character in the play, Celie, faces tragedy and takes a lifetime to heal and a lifetime to realize that finding love is a new beginning. This part was all too fitting for LaChanze to play—her husband Calvin Gooding died in the 9/11 attacks, devastating LaChanze and her two daughters. She has been in several other Broadway shows including Dreamgirls, Once on This Island, and If/Then, which will start performances this March. LaChanze is also known for her work on the silver screen, including The Help and Side Effects.
Whoopi Goldberg is a comedian, actress, singer-songwriter, political activist, author, and talk show host. Her breakthrough role was also in The Color Purple, playing Celie in the film version. She won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1990 film Ghost, making her the second black woman to win an Oscar for acting—the first was in 1939. Goldberg won a Tony for Best Musical for her production of Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002. She is one of the very few entertainers to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award. Her incredibly successful acting career allowed her to support many causes focusing on LGBT rights and AIDS activism. She is currently the moderator of the daytime talk show The View.
Juanita Hall, born in 1901, was a musical theater and film actress best remembered for her roles in the stage and screen versions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals South Pacific and Flower Drum Song. Hall was trained at the Juilliard School of Music and Drama, and her expansive repertoire ranged from popular songs of the day to folk music and the blues. In 1950, she became the first African American to win a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Bloody Mary in South Pacific. She played this role for 1,925 performances on Broadway. She was a successful blues singer until her death at age 66 due to complications from diabetes.