December 21, 2019

The Most Meaningful Shows of 2019 For Me

For those of us who write about culture, the holiday season includes making Top 10 lists. But this year, I’ve decided against trying to anoint the best shows I’ve seen or even tallying up my favorites of the past year. Instead I want to celebrate something that I think is more significant: the integration of works by theater artists of color into the theatrical mainstream.

Works such as David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power, Leah Nanako Winkler’s God Said This, Alexis Scheer’s Our Dear Dead Drug Lord and Sylvia Khoury’s Power Strip provided engaging and enlightening views of the world as seen through the Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern gaze. But it is African-American stories that have made the most progress this past year.

Two shows by black playwrights—Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy and Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play—opened on the often all too aptly named Great White Way. And just about every major off-Broadway company included at least one black themed-work in their season and they didn’t maroon them all in February’s Black History Month slot either. 

Meanwhile The Public Theater presented the first professional revival of Nzotake Shange’s trailblazing choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf since the show debut there in 1976.

Other productions, such as director Daniel Fish’s resetting of Oklahoma!, The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of All My Sons, the Primary Stages adaptation of Little Women and Shakespeare in the Park’s all-black version of Much Ado About Nothing tried, with varying success, to weave the black experience into established classics.

At the same time, but with almost no aren't-we-woke fanfare, black women played the main love interest in such varied productions as Betrayal and Tootsie on Broadway and in Cyrano and Scotland, PA. off-Broadway.

Capping it all off, Jackie Sibblies Drury won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fairview, a boundary-busting work that challenged the way we all look at theater, especially when it deals with people of color.

I was lucky enough to see all of those shows and to find something of value in almost each one. And I'm hoping that they aren't just a fad but a real sea change ushering in truly more inclusive theater. In the meantime here, in alphabetical order, are the 10 (old habits die hard) productions I saw this year about the black experience that still linger with me:

1. Ain’t Too Proud: Sure it’s a jukebox musical with a traditional rags-to-riches-to-almost-wrecked-it-all storyline but the soul music of The Temptations is irresistible, the performances in this production are terrific and this show put a bigger smile on my face than any other thing I saw on Broadway this year.

2. American Moor: One-person shows aren’t usually my favorite but playwright-performer Keith Hamilton Cobb’s meditation on one black actor’s struggle to bring his interpretation of Othello to the stage personalized the tension between the way black people see themselves and the way white people, even well-meaning ones, see them.

3. Behind the Sheet: In telling the story of early gynecology in this country by dramatizing the medical experiments done on enslaved black women, Charly Evon Simpson not only revealed a painful part of this nation’s history but restored dignity and honor to those women, who like legions of others, suffered in anonymity to make America as great as it has been.

4. Boesman and Lena: Signature Theatre’s revival of Athol Fugard’s classic play about a South African couple driven from their homeland didn't erase the memory of previous productions with such actors as James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee and the great Zakes Mokae but the magnificent performances of Sahr Ngaujah and Zainab Jah still managed to give the show a new and urgent relevance when people around the world are being made refugees because of their ethnicity or beliefs.

5. Fires in the Mirror: I was dubious when I heard that Signature Theatre was reviving Anna Deavere Smith’s landmark 1992 one-person play without Smith. But Michael Benjamin Washington gives such a remarkable performance that this show about the 1991 Crown Heights riot that claimed black and Jewish victims resonated for me in new way that reflected the fractured times in which we now live.

6. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven: This is a big messy thing but playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ unabashed determination to pay honest tribute to women—abused women, butch women, fat women, immigrant women, old women, women of color—whose lives are so often marginalized or trivialized onstage and in society that it won me over.

7. The Light: The ongoing debate over what to do with men who have sexually mistreated women is sensitively portrayed in this two person-drama by newcomer Loy A. Webb and the fact that the characters are African-American is a powerful reminder of the ways in which this country has always dealt differently with sexual transgressions against black women and those allegedly committed by black men.

8. Marys Seacole: Not resting on her laurels, Jackie Sibblies Drury crafted another ingenious work, this one examining the way in which black women throughout history, starting with the titular British woman who served as a nurse during the Boer War, have served—and been ignored—in the role of caretakers, all brought to vivid life by a multi-cultural cast led by the always brilliant Quincy Tyler Bernstine.

9. A Strange Loop: Michael R. Jackson’s wholly original musical puts the life of a queer black artist at centerstage and sets his professional and personal woes to a pop-soul score that offers some of the most ear-wormy show music of the year.

10. Toni Stone: Shows about sports often have a hard time onstage but, with strong assistance from a heartfelt performance by April Matthis, Lydia R. Diamond scored with her bio-play about the titular character whose 1949 debut in the Negro Baseball League made her the first woman to play professional baseball for any male team.

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