Black History Month 2019: African Americans in Theater

By Alana Donocoff, Cataloger, Digiteam, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Black History Month 2019: Musical Collections from the National Museum of African American History and Culture

 

 

As we move through February, the Transcription Center team and the staff at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) continue to focus on the Smithsonian's Year of Music for Black History Month. In addition to other NMAAHC music-related projects already launched, we're highlighting objects - specifically playbills - centered on André De Shields, famously known for his works in The Wiz and Ain't Misbehavin'. Playbills help to portray the importance of African Americans in theater. Shows featuring all African American casts celebrate the "creative achievements, demonstrate their cultural impact, and illuminate their struggles for artistic freedom and equal representation." [1]
 
Born in Baltimore, André De Shields caught the acting bug early. In 1969, he starred in his first production, Hair, in Chicago. De Shields made his Broadway debut as Xander in 1973’s Warp! before debuting the role of the Wizard in the 1975 premier of The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” [2]  The Wiz is based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, set within the context of African American culture. It opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975 and closed at the Broadway Theatre on January 28, 1979. The original cast included Stephanie Mills, Hinton Battle, Tiger Haynes, Ted Ross, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Mabel King, Clarice Taylor, and André De Shields.

 

 

Image: Playbill for The Wiz, 1975. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Kayla Deigh Owens, Playbill used by permission. All rights reserved, Playbill Inc. 2011.45.98

 

 

The production received mixed reviews from the New York critics. However, after a massive television ad campaign and an editorial appearing in the New York Amsterdam News that urged black theatergoers to see the show and spread the word, sales skyrocketed and the production became a huge success running for 1,672 performances. The original Broadway production won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Costume Design (Geoffrey Holder), Best Director (Geoffrey Holder), Best Choreography (George Faison), Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Ted Ross), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Dee Dee Bridgewater), and Best Original Score (Charlie Smalls). [3]

 

 

Image: Costume for the WIzard in The Wiz on Broadway, 1975. Designed by Geoffrey Holder. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane. 2007.3.8

 

 

 

Following the success of The Wiz, De Shields went on to star in Ain’t Misbehavin’, a musical celebrating the life and music of Thomas “Fats” Waller.  Ain't Misbehavin' opened in the Manhattan Theater Club’s cabaret on February 8, 1978 and opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre on May 9, 1978 eventually transferring to the Plymouth Theater and then the Belasco Theatre until the show closed on February 21, 1982, after 1,604 performances. The original cast featured André De Shields, Nell Carter, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page and Charlayne Woodard.  The show won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Featured Actress in a Musical (Nell Carter), and Best Direction of a Musical (Richard Maltby, Jr.). On June 12, 1982, the original Broadway cast appeared in a NBC broadcast of the revue which earned an Emmy Award for André De Shields. The musical is a tribute to the African American musicians of the 1920s and 1930s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of growing creativity, cultural awareness, and racial pride. [4]

 

 

Image: Playbill for Ain't Misbehavin', 1978. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Kayla Deigh Owens, Playbill used by permission. All rights reserved, Playbill Inc. 2011.45.2ab

 

 

Productions like The Wiz and Ain’t Misbehavin’, with all African-American casts, showed how “African Americans have acted to shape and transform the ways they are represented onstage by challenging racial discrimination and stereotypes and producing more diverse images of African American identity and experience.” [5]

 

Help us transcribe the playbills for these productions to make them more accessible and discoverable to researchers around the world!

 

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Sources: 

 

[1] https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/exhibitions/taking-stage

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andr%C3%A9_De_Shields

[3] Dwandalyn R. Reece, November 29, 2017, Acquisition Justification, Accession File/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wiz

[4] Dwandalyn R. Reece, November 29, 2017, Acquisition Justification, Accession File/

[5] https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/exhibitions/taking-stage