TO the casual theater observer, and sometimes even to the obsessed aficionado, one Broadway season can look very much like the next. Names of stars more familiarly splashed on movie trailers are glowing from marquees around the district. The London-to-Broadway express delivers its usual cargo of prestige attractions. New musicals based on popular movies cause devotees to lament the days when Broadway was not a recycling plant but a hotbed of cultural creativity.
This season is in most ways no exception, but in at least one sense it is distinctly anomalous. This fall will bring to Broadway two new plays by African-American women: “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall, opening Oct. 13 at the Bernard Jacobs Theater, and “Stick Fly” by Lydia R. Diamond, opening Dec. 8 at the Cort Theater.Suzan-Lori Parks’s contributions to the revised version of“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which is scheduled to arrive on Broadway this winter, brings to three the number of black women whose work will be seen in the country’s premier theatrical marketplace this season.
In an ideal world this confluence would be incidental. Playwrights rightly bristle at being sorted into categories and resist having their works considered from the perspective of the author’s racial or ethnic background. Good work should speak for itself, and ideally to audiences of all kinds. But the fact is Broadway remains to a dispiriting degree hidebound in terms of the kind of work being presented and the audience being served.
Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun” — the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, in 1959 — was a landmark but hardly a breakthrough. And the 20 years and more of August Wilson’s works being acclaimed (if rarely profitable) on Broadway did not result in a new wave of black playwrights being presented on New York’s most prestigious stages. New plays by women — of any color — remain by far the exception to the rule on Broadway.
Kenny Leon, the director of the recent smash revival of “Fences,” is directing both “The Mountaintop” and “Stick Fly.” He notes, “I can’t remember the last time there were three women playwrights on Broadway during the same season, let alone three African-American women.”
Although the backgrounds of their authors makes them notable, “The Mountaintop” and “Stick Fly” come to Broadway via the traditional routes and with some of the familiar assets required to brave the increasingly star-centric Broadway economy. Ms. Hall’s play, which depicts a fictionalized version of the last night in the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., received critical acclaim and the prestigious Olivier Award for best play when it was produced in the West End in London, after moving from a smaller theater. This production has new stars, the powerhouse team of Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. King and Angela Bassett as a maid at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King spent the night before his assassination.
Ms. Hall, 29, is amused at suggestions she’s heard that having her play produced in London was a savvy strategic move.
“Everyone thinks I was a sneaky girl who had this play produced over there because it was controversial,” she said in an interview. “The fact was, the opportunity arose. I had acted in the director James Dacre’s play three years before. I e-mailed him the play, and a couple of weeks later he e-mailed me and said he’d convinced his theater to do it. At the time I was working on a bare-bones workshop production here. After the workshop I flew to London and two days later was working on a full production — in a theater over a pub.”
Ms. Hall’s desire to write grew out of her frustrations as an actress.
“At Columbia I took an acting course, and my acting partner and I were assigned to do a scene from a play with two young black women,” she recalled. “We go to the library and start pulling down plays, and eventually gave up. ‘Maybe we can share the role of Tituba in ‘The Crucible’?” she remembered saying. “In that moment I thought, I have to write.”
Her ebullience over reaching Broadway is tempered by an awareness that this season is hardly a usual one. “I’m used to the Great White Way being the Great White Way,” she said, “so yes it feels really good. But I’m hesitant to celebrate because next season we may be back to white male writers only. Let’s be cautious.”