Broadway is back, and its 2021 new play lineup is brimming with shows by Black writers.
Through the end of the year, new and returning shows are scheduled to hit Broadway stages after theaters closed for a year and a half due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Shows are set to begin as early as August, bringing back both beloved musicals and plays that were forced to close early because of the pandemic, and new work seeing the Broadway stage for the first time.
Among the current fall lineup are seven new plays, and all of them were written by Black playwrights.
For some playwrights, a Broadway debut
Five of these playwrights are set to see their work performed on the Broadway stage for the very first time, including Douglas Lyons, writer of Chicken & Biscuits. The comedy will begin previews in Circle in the Square Theatre in September, featuring Broadway's youngest Black director to date, 27-year-old Zhailon Levingston.
The show was quickly forced to end its run in Queens Theatre last year because of the pandemic. Despite its non-traditional route to Broadway, however, Lyons said the ability to reopen theaters with the work now feels "right on time."
"I think people are going to be refreshed to be back in the theater, but also refreshed with the stories they're getting in the theater," he said. "There's a whole generation of artists that have not been seen, and I feel like this COVID thing stopped the world and gave Broadway no excuse to not see us."
Written in 2018, Lyons' play has only existed for about three years, but the new playwright will see his work go up this season alongside pieces that turned decades old before seeing a Broadway run, including the late Alice Childress' Trouble In Mind, which was originally written in 1955.
Eyes on Broadway's long-term commitment to Black stories
While Lyons is optimistic that the lineup is a step toward progress, he said he and others will be watching Broadway's next moves when it comes to keeping Black stories onstage.
Drew Shade, founder and creative director of Broadway Black, an organization that highlights Black achievements in theater, also wonders whether Broadway will keep up the momentum. Five plays have already been scheduled for 2022, and none so far were written by Black writers.
"Seven Black shows coming to Broadway — it's unprecedented. It's what we would like to see, especially after the racial reckoning we've had in this society over the past year, and more specifically in the theater industry," Shade said. "But we also have to be realistic about the placement of the shows. We have to be realistic about what this may mean for Black artists going forward."
The difficulties of opening a Broadway show amid pandemic
The upcoming season also presents ticketing challenges. Still recovering from the latest wave of the pandemic and with the Delta variant on the rise, tourism in New York remains low. Plays — particularly new Black-written plays — face extreme pressure to be immediately financially successful, Shade said, and risk being quickly shut down and shut out if they aren't.
Making it big is already a challenge for any show, and even more so during a pandemic.
"Most shows on Broadway don't do well," said Britton Smith, president and co-founder of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. "There are some shows that have incredible impact and an incredible story that we should consider, but they don't always make the most money."
But COVID-19 protocols in the theater and how plays are received in a post-Broadway-shutdown world present their own unique blend of challenges, especially to the first shows coming back, like Pass Over, written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu. The three-person play will reopen the August Wilson Theatre for the first time since the venue hosted Mean Girls.
"We are the first show back; everybody's looking at us," Nwandu said. "People are looking at the August (Theatre), at Broadway: 'What are you guys doing? How are you going to handle this moment?'"
No matter the response, Nwandu said she and her team are ready to take on the historic moment in Broadway history and share their work with the world.
"Our responsibility is to just meet that moment with as much authenticity, as much kindness, as much honesty and as much rigor to be truth-tellers," she said.
Here are the seven new plays by Black playwrights scheduled for the fall, in order of opening date:
- Pass Over, written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu and directed by Danya Taymor.
- Chicken & Biscuits, written by Douglas Lyons and directed by Zhailon Levingston.
- Lackawanna Blues, written and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
- Thoughts of a Colored Man, written by Keenan Scott II and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III.
- Trouble in Mind, written by Alice Childress and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.
- Clyde's, written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whoriskey.
- Skeleton Crew, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
Josie Fischels is an intern on NPR's News Desk.