At a time when a new coronavirus variant threatens to undo any modicum of progress that New York City made during the pandemic, it seems almost preposterous that live theater ever even happened this year. But it was not only restored; it was exuberant.
With that came a plethora of rich, deeply human stories about Black and other people of color, illuminating a variety of lives that defy all moral, sexual or gender binaries.
From two Black men contemplating their lives at a crossroads to six disregarded Tudor-period women taking center stage, to Broadway confronting its own demons in a more than 60-year-old play, these productions show more than what’s possible. They show what’s actually already here — if we only choose to look.
Along with those are the outside-of-the-box plays and musicals, including one helmed by a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and another that challenges the very limits of what a single talent can personify in one story. In spite of everything, it was an overflow of genius.
OK, this one wasn’t exactly on Broadway, but “Merry Wives” helped welcome the return of live theater farther uptown last summer at Shakespeare in the Park after it went dark throughout the harrowing first leg of the pandemic. Awkwardly described as a Shakespearan “Real Housewives,” “Merry Wives” is more about two idle ladies of the house (the hilarious Pascale Armand and Susan Kelechi Watson) who decide to band together and give swindler Falstaff (Jacob Ming-Trent) a taste of his own medicine.
Ghanaian American playwright Jocelyn Bioh remarkably adapted “Merry Wives” from Shakespeare’s 1602 comedy “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Bioh seamlessly thrusts an already timeless tale into present-day South Harlem where West African immigrants uproariously play the game of love — often set to an electrifying drum beat. It is pure bliss.
Who knew that the stories of the ill-fated wives of Henry VIII could look as cool as a female sextet donning kinked-up versions of their medieval wardrobes while belting out irreverent songs about how they were done wrong? “Divorced!” “Beheaded!” “Died!” “Divorced!” “Beheaded!” “Survived!”
Yes, not one but two of his former spouses were decapitated, so obviously, they have some residual feelings about that as they join the other women in a musical battle for the audience’s sympathy.
The multicultural cast featuring Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Abby Mueller, Brittney Mack, Courtney Mack and Anna Uzele is such a riot to watch as they bring to life writers-directors Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow’s thrilling and poignant retelling of the ultimate jilted brides. Yes, there are themes of despair and heartbreak, but “Six” is most profoundly about reclaiming their narratives, together.
David Byrne’s “American Utopia” is a bit hard to describe. Its title suggests that it is an attempt by a white guy — albeit the illustrious lead singer of The Talking Heads — to paint a broad image of what American paradise could look like. But it’s not that at all.
Using the rock band’s poignant tunes, including “Burning Down the House” and “Once in a Lifetime,” Byrne grapples with the idea of hope and promise of revival in the midst of turmoil. Collaborating with musicians from around the globe who often serve as parallel characters onstage with him the whole time, Byrne creates a singular theatrical experience that could only come from one of the most visionary minds.
In short, playwright Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” is one of the most fascinating plays to hit Broadway this year. That’s because it dares to reach far beyond what you might look for in a play that deals with faith and hopelessness in equal measure through lengthy riffs between two Black friends (the incredible Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood) sitting on a corner waiting for…something.
The mystery surrounding what’s next is met with bleak impossibility as the two men ponder their mortality and what is real. It seems like they will never leave this literal and metaphorical corner until another presence enters their realm and disrupts their daydream. Questions about this person (Gabriel Ebert) and the Promised Land he represents linger with you long after you’ve seen the play. But one thing is clear: “Pass Over” is a gem.
“Trouble in Mind”
It only takes Broadway legend LaChanze’s name on a Playbill for audiences to come out in droves to watch her perform. Add Alice Childress — who was known for four decades as the only Black woman to have written, produced and published plays — to the list of credits and you have a bonafide hit without knowing anything else about it.
Still, “Trouble in Mind,” which was supposed to debut on Broadway in 1955 but was canceled when Childress refused to tone down its messaging, is so riveting that you forget that you’re actually watching a performance. That’s because it dares to confront the real-life racism in the theater world through the eyes of Black artists, most deeply felt with Willetta Mayer’s (LaChanze) story as a Black female thespian who must rely on playing one stereotype after the next to survive.
Despite its heaviness at times, Childress’ play within a play is infused with humor and sarcasm, as well as beautifully paced dialogue that shows the dexterity of a Black female voice that is as resonant as ever.
Bioh’s “Nollywood Dreams” was such a delight. The play, which premiered off-Broadway in November after being delayed by the pandemic, is laugh-out-loud funny as it explores the Nollywood film industry in the ’90s. Centered on Ayamma (Sandra Okuboyejo), a young woman who works at a travel agency with her sister Dede (Nana Mensah) but lands an audition with an up-and-coming Nigerian director as he gets ready to shoot his new film.
The production takes a fun look at the early days of what is now a booming film industry in Lagos, Nigeria, and is full of fun, vibrant costumes that take you straight to the ’90s. And best of all, in the final moments of the play, we get a look at the wacky final production of the film at the center of the story. A fun time, indeed.
If you’ve only watched the 2005 HBO film of the same name, it might take you a second to realize that the exceptional playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson is playing all 20-plus characters in “Lackawanna Blues.”
That includes Miss Rachel, or “Nanny,” as she is affectionately called, a character inspired by the real-life woman who raised Santiago-Hudson in a 1950s boarding house in Buffalo, New York. Marvelously unburdened by the many different souls he embodies throughout the play, sometimes even picking up a harmonica and joining onstage guitarist Junior Mack in song, the Tony Award winner totally vanishes on stage as the audience is immersed in the story. A truly uncanny feat.
“Thoughts of a Colored Man”
You don’t really know what to expect at the start of playwright Keenan Scott II’s Broadway debut, even though it is exactly what the title suggests and yet so much more. Seven Black men (portrayed by a cast that includes Luke James, Tristan Mack Wilds, and Dyllón Burnside) shoot the breeze about life, love, sexuality and the struggle everywhere from the barbershop to waiting in line for the newest sneakers on the market.
Everything about Scott’s play, under the direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, feels so lived-in as the audience eavesdrops on the mean’s uninhibited conversations with each other as well as their most personal conflicts and musings. The two storytellers give these men permission to be uncertain, powerful, funny, and even embrace failure. As an audience member, all you ever want to see is a reflection of the human experience, and “Thoughts of a Colored Man” is exactly that.