To be featured at one of New York’s famous Broadway theaters is a great and difficult accomplishment for any actor, musician, playwright or director. Over the years, many black women have worked hard to achieve the highest success in commercial theater. Some have made it to Broadway, yet their success is little known and little celebrated.
African-American women today still face challenges to the Great White Way, as they have in the past, but some remarkable women have overcome obstacles and have seen their names in lights.
The legacy of success of black women in Broadway started with Ethel Waters in 1927. She became the first black woman to appear on Broadway in the production of Africana. In 1949 she became the second African-American woman, after Hattie McDaniel, to be nominated for an Academy Award for the film Pinky. Outside of acting, Waters is known for her blues, jazz and gospel singing. Waters broke the color barrier time and time again, becoming the first black woman to perform on television, and to be heard on the radio.
Juanita Hall became the first black woman to win a Tony Award in 1950. She won this award for her Best Supporting Actress in the musical South Pacific for her role as Bloody Mary. Hall performed as Bloody Mary in 1,925 performances on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre. Hall continued a career in acting and was featured numerous times on Broadway and on television.
On March 11, 1959, A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre, making Lorraine Hansberry the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. With the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry became the youngest playwright and fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. Hansberry’s life and career as an author, activist, and playwright was cut short when she died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34.
In 1972, Vinnette Justine Carroll made history by becoming the first black woman to direct on Broadway with the musical Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. This musical was such a success that it was nominated for four Tony Awards. Carroll’s success continued in 1976 with Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, which received three Tony Award nominations.
Phylicia Rashad became the first black woman to win the Tony award for best leading actress in a play in 2004. Although she may be best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on the sitcom The Cosby Show, Rashad made history only nine years ago when she won the coveted Tony for her role as Lena Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Rashad can also be seen as Lena Younger in the 2008 film version of A Raisin in the Sun.