MLK: Black Stories on Broadway Through the Decades (Part 2)
January 16, 2023
By Jordan Levinson
Another one of Wilson’s most notable works is the fourth play in his Pittsburgh Cycle, The Piano Lesson. The play takes the ideas of legacies and family history and asks how we preserve them. Set in post-Depression Pittsburgh, The Piano Lesson follows a brother and a sister debating whether they should sell their family’s prized heirloom piano (carved with their ancestors’ faces). Only by revisiting their history can the family find a way to decide. The play arrived on Broadway in 1990, winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A revival starring Samuel L. Jackson, John David Washington, and Danielle Brooks opened in September 2022 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and is about to conclude its limited engagement later this month.
Wilson’s final work, Radio Golf, is also the last installment in the Cycle. It tells the story of Harmond Wilks, who is on a quest to reinvigorate Pittsburgh’s Hill District (through a major redevelopment project) and become its first Black mayor. Following a 2005 premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, Radio Golf received a Broadway mounting in 2007, with Kenny Leon directing. Notably, it played the Cort Theatre, the same house where Wilson’s first Broadway play— 1984’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — opened.
The African nation of Liberia saw itself represented on the Broadway stage when Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed opened in 2016 at the John Golden Theatre, following a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway run at the Public Theatre the year before. A story of hope and resilience, the play is set in 2003 in a small, bullet-ridden, one-room shack, and it follows five Liberian women as they survive the final stages of the Second Liberian Civil War. The Broadway production made history, as it became the first all-Black and female play to make it to the Great White Way. Eclipsed marked the Broadway debut of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who received one of the show’s 5 Tony nominations, which included Best Play.
In 2022, Broadway audiences braced themselves for the flight of their lives, as Ain’t No Mo’ took off at the Belasco Theatre, also following a successful Public Theater run. Through a biting mosaic of vignettes, this sketch comedy imagines a world in which descendants of enslaved peoples are offered the chance to escape to Africa following Barack Obama’s election. The vignettes throughout the show touch upon themes of racism, classism, and culture. As Ain’t No Mo’ arrived at the Belasco for a limited engagement, Jordan E. Cooper became the youngest Black American to debut on Broadway as a playwright. Sales were lacking, though, and the run was cut short. What followed was one of the most triumphant final weeks in recent history: Cooper launched a #saveAINTNOMO campaign on Twitter, which gained a big celebrity push. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Shonda Rhimes, Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade, Queen Latifah, Sara Ramirez, and Tyler Perry all bought out performances, resulting in a one-week extension.