Get­ting into musi­cal the­ater: A list of per­for­mances by BIPOC artists

4 minute read
A still from the 2018 Wilma Theatre production of 'Passing Strange'. (Photo courtesy of Wilma Theatre.)
A still from the 2018 Wilma Theatre production of 'Passing Strange'. (Photo courtesy of Wilma Theatre.)

Is this the summer I finally throw myself into musical theater? It might be, but that sentiment is a feeling five years in the making. I’ve maintained many times before that I’m a rookie when it comes to theater (or maybe I’ve elevated to student over the years, but that’s not for me to decide). After writing about Hamilton, I’ve found a curiosity for discovering more musical theater by and for BIPOC.

I never would’ve seen it coming that, five years later, Hamilton would be the spark I needed. Alas, here we are! I hope this list can help you discover more outside of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway play.

The Wiz

Winner of seven Tony Awards, this musical reimagines The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for the culture. The music and lyrics were helmed by Charlie Smalls, a composer and songwriter who was gone too soon.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

Debuting in 2017, Summer tells the story of the legendary Donna Summer in three different parts of her life, moving through her pre-teens to her young adulthood and ultimately into the top of her career later on. The performance is accompanied by the book written in part by Colman Domingo, a Philadelphia native who also starred in Passing Strange.

Sarafina!

The South African musical by Mbongeni Ngema tells a story of the fight against apartheid via the Soweto Riots. The Broadway performance debuted in 1987, with a 1992 film debuting later starring Whoopi Goldberg and Leleti Khumalo.

Passing Strange

A story of a young Black man’s artistic journey through Europe, the existential musical debuted in 2006, with its most recent run produced in Philadelphia in 2018. The music comes from Stew, the singer-songwriter who is frontrunner of the band The Negro Problem.

Jelly’s Last Jam

Jelly Roll Morton is a Creole man who claims to have invented jazz and wrestles with an identity crisis in the face of death in a state of limbo. The 1992 Broadway production featured the likes of Gregory Hines, Keith David, and more.

Fela!

Based on the music of the late Nigerian singer Fela Kuti, the 2008 musical follows the story of Kuti as he was targeted by government soldiers sent to end his public performances.

Dreamgirls

The 1981 Broadway musical was a star-studded affair and earned itself 13 Tony Awards nominations, following the story of a young trio of women from Chicago who become music superstars. The 2006 feature film carried just as much prowess in its success. Both are groundbreaking in centering Black women in theater and film.

Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk

Blending musical elements with tap, Bring In ‘Da Noise is a grand look at Black history reaching far back to slavery to current day—around its debut in 1995. It was directed by George Costello Wolfe, who won a Tony Award two years earlier for directing Angels in America: Milennium Approaches.

Aida

The eclectic musical based on the opera of the same name, the story follows the Ethiopian princess Aida and the Egyptian warrior Radamès and the tragic forbidden love they share that questions their loyalty to their countries. Music comes from the likes of Elton John and Tim Rice.

Once on this Island

Based on the novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, the 1990 Broadway play is a story about love, social classes, and carving out your own place in the world. It’s another play that serves as a vital beacon for Black girl magic.

Shuffle Along

Shuffle Along is a deep cut, having made its Broadway debut in 1921 and running for over 500 performances. Its writers were Black Vaudeville veterans who met in Philadelphia, and the play helped launch the careers of civil rights activists and artists Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington, and Adelaide Hall. There’s a lot of history around this play about a corrupt mayoral race and racial identity politics.

In the Heights

I don’t like to assume that people know about works that are nonetheless considered big titles. I’d never heard of In the Heights until after my first encounters with Hamilton in 2015. But for those who may first be discovering musical theater and/or may not be familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work, In the Heights is seen by many as his better work. I’ll let you decide that for yourself, but the show is a blend of hip-hop, merengue, and salsa as it tells the story of a Dominican American neighborhood in Washington Heights, NYC. This will probably be a great segue into musical theater if Hamilton is your first foray.

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