A Juneteenth Salute To Black Theatre

This Friday, many Black Americans will celebrate Juneteenth. I didn’t really learn about Juneteenth until I was older and don’t remember a time when I truly sat back to reflect on Juneteenth, the celebration of Black American’s official emancipation from slavery on June 19, 1865. If there’s a year to start celebrating this important date in Black history, it’s 2020.

In cities across the country, Black folks traditionally celebrate with block parties, cookouts, dance parties, and more. It is a time for educating ourselves and our children, for gathering as a community, and for uplifting the power of Black liberation. There are red foods like hot links, watermelon, and Kool-Aid that represent hard work and ingenuity and black music spanning from spirituals to Motown classics blasts proudly from speakers. While we can’t gather the same way we have in the past, we can find ways to celebrate our legacy as African Americans.

Here are some resources to learn more about Juneteenth:

Since this is a theatre blog, I’m taking this opportunity to share a few of the awesome Black plays and musicals to watch, read, or listen to in celebration of Juneteenth. Many of the plays listed are also available for free as ebooks at your local library.

Fences by August Wilson

One of the most lauded and well-loved classic plays of the American theatre, Fences follows Troy Maxson, a former star of the Negro Leagues Baseball who now works as a sanitation worker in 1957 Pittsburgh. Excluded as a Black man from the major leagues during his prime, Troy’s bitterness takes its toll on his relationships with his wife and his son, who now wants his own chance to play ball. Watch the trailer for the 2016 film version starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Another show that starred Denzel Washington, A Raisin In The Sun is of two Broadway shows we took our family to see during my college graduation week. It follows the story of a Black family in Chicago as they grapple with identity, relationships, and upward mobility after the death of their patriarch. See below for the trailer for the 1961 film starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee or the full version of the Diddy rendition (I can’t vouch for his acting skills).

Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2, and 3 by Suzan Lori Parks

This play by the prolific Suzan Lori Parks tells the story of Hero, a slave promised his freedom if he fights in the Confederacy with his master. A lyrical masterpiece from the poetic mind of one of favorite playwrights, this Pulitzer Prize-winning play is another in a long line of works by Parks that reckon with America’s relationship with Black history. Watch the trailer below.

By The Way, Meet Vera Stark by Lynn Nottage

Heartbreaking and funny, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark follows the life of a black actress and the parallels with her sometime friend and often enemy, a white (passing) woman named Gloria Mitchell. While Vera is fictional, her story is a resonant reminder of the history and present of black women in Hollywood. Watch the trailer below.

The Color Purple
Book by Marsha Norman. Music and Lyrics by Allee Willis, Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell.

Based on Alice Walker’s incredible classic novel, this musical about a woman named Celie’s journey to self-actualization has only gotten better with each iteration. Y’all. While every performance I’ve seen of The Color Purple has been moving, Cynthia Erivo can act her behind off and she can blow. That woman had me sobbing like a little baby. Watch her perform “I’m Here” and listen to the full soundtrack below.

Passing Strange by Stew

A lesser known but excellent dramedy musical about one young Black musician’s journey of self discovery, Passing Strange is a musical I first encountered when my college’s Black Theatre Ensemble did a co-production of it with our musical theatre society. Watch “Amsterdam” from Passing Strange or listen to the full score below.

Motown the Musical by Berry Gordy

Motown the Musical was the other show we took my family to see during my college graduation week. A jukebox musical following the rise of Motown, this musical a joyous experience, and the soundtrack is appropriate for any cookout (or socially distanced cook in) you have this summer.

Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Choir Boy is a show that I had the pleasure of seeing during its 2019 Broadway run. It is a beautiful coming-of-age tale that follows one young man’s journey of self-discovery at a historically black all boys prep school. The story is unlike any I’d previously seen on Broadway and the score alone is enough to send shivers down your spine.

Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris

One of the most controversial plays to ever hit the Great White Way, Slave Play was the most innovative and confronting show I saw last year. It is a dark satirical comedy that explores the complicated intersections of sex, sexuality, race, and power involved in interracial relationships. A lot of people hated it. I was one of the people who loved it. Watch below to learn more about Jeremy O. Harris’s creative process.

A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson

The winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (one of only 10 musicals to do so since the award’s inception in 1917), A Strange Loop premiered Off-Broadway at Playwright’s Horizons in 2019. It is a fun, heart-wrenching, satire that follows the life of a queer black usher named Usher, who works for a musical while battling his inner demons to write his own musical. Listen to the score here and watch the trailer below. FYI, the score is definitely rated R.

Every time I write a post about the theatre, it makes me miss the gathering and performing so much. Writing about this art form during a period when theatres are dark is a bittersweet experience, but revisiting these Black shows make me particularly happy. I love us so much. I’m so proud to be Black.

Happy Juneteenth!

Love and theatre,

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