Women of color are claiming center stage in New York theaters this season, embracing challenging roles and delivering commanding performances of uncommon magnitude.
We’ve had thrilling appearances all this year – beginning with The Color Purple, Marsha Norman’s musical drama set in rural Georgia (c. 1909), featuring Cynthia Erivo as an abused wife and Jennifer Hudson as a former prostitute who helps her to break free from domestic and spiritual bondage.
Next came Kecia Lewis’s powerful performance in the title role of Mother Courage, Brecht’s masterpiece, at Classic Stage Company. Lewis stepped in to replace an actress who left the company just before opening night. After only six rehearsals, Lewis went on stage to complete a run of less than two weeks. The determination she brought to the ensemble is, to my mind, the year’s most admirable show business success story.
Then came The Royale, Marco Ramirez’s taut new drama at Lincoln Center, with Montego Glover playing the sister of a black boxer who challenges the white world champion (c. 1910). In an all-male world, hers was the voice of reason and dignity, and the spirit of morality and goodness.
Just last month, Danai Gurira’s powerful new drama, Eclipsed, opened on Broadway, providing five marvelous roles for actresses of color, all played with passionate intensity. Eclipsed tells the story of five women caught in the crossfires of the Liberian Civil War (c. 2003). Three are “wives” of a rebel commander, raped and forced into sexual servitude. Taken into captivity at an early age, they don’t even know their own names – or at least have suppressed them.
Eclipsed focuses on these women’s interactions as they struggle to survive under impossible conditions. Wife #1, as she’s called (Saycon Sengbloh), has been in servitude for more than a decade and doesn’t even know how old she is. Wife #3 (Pascale Armand) is pregnant; and together, they are trying desperately to protect a newcomer called “The Girl” from a similar fate. There are devastating moments in the story when they line up, waiting to be chosen by their off-stage captor for compulsory sex. Otherwise, the women clean their hovel, talk amongst themselves, and hope against hope for freedom. Their only diversion is listening to The Girl (the only literate one) read aloud from a biography of Bill Clinton, the single book they own (one of this play’s welcome moments of comic relief).
This trio in bondage is visited by Wife #2 (played with ferocity by Zainab Jah), the one captive who has discovered how to break away from enslavement: by joining the rebel army (against the dictator Charles Taylor) and becoming a killer herself. She is intent on saving The Girl (the amazing Lupita Nyong’o of Twelve Years a Slave fame) by recruiting her. “It’s you or them,” she tells The Girl. “It’s how you survive.”
The play’s deus ex machina arrives in the form of Rita (Akosua Busia), one of the Liberian “women in white” – a so-called corps of urban Liberian women intent on liberating their sisters in captivity. As the play draws to its traumatic close and the war ends, the women are free to leave – only to make some unexpected and shocking choices.
Struggle to survive
Finally, in Head of Passes, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has written a role that seems custom made for Phylicia Rashad, the celebrated star of TV (The Cosby Show) and stage (Raisin in the Sun, Gem of the Ocean). Following in the tradition of the American family drama (à la Lorraine Hansberry and Lillian Hellman), Head of Passes relates the story of Shelah, an elderly matriarch who struggles to maintain her business (a rooming house in the Louisiana Delta) and keep her family together. The action takes place on her birthday, when her adult children gather and discover that their mother is hiding the truth about her failing health. Suddenly, an unexpected natural disaster turns their world upside down, and Shelah must face a tragedy of Greek proportion. (McCraney claims that he fashioned his story on the Book of Job).
Rashad, at 67 a stately actress of beauty and dignity, delivers a wrenching soliloquy in Act II that rivals Hecuba’s (of The Trojan Women), requiring her to turn herself inside out, both physically and emotionally. Watching a once-in-a-lifetime performance like hers is both a thrilling and a humbling experience.
This year’s Oscar nominations witnessed a justified protest over the blatant omission of African-American actors. That must not happen in the theater this season. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, “Attention must be paid” to the actresses of color currently gracing New York stages with power and passion, playing courageous, determined survivors against all odds.