A daring pioneer in the Old West. A genteel lady of privilege in New Orleans Creole society. A naive farmgirl in rural Kansas. An internationally famous pop superstar.
Below, explore musicals featuring some of the powerful and compelling roles created specifically for Black female actors.
Bella: An American Tall Tale by Kirsten Childs (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Comedy / 5f, 7m)
When Bella boards a train west to reunite with her Buffalo soldier sweetheart, she encounters the most colorful and lively characters ever to roam the Western plains. Bullets and fists will fly, heads and hearts will break, but – blessed with a big heart, and a voluptuous figure – Bella will breeze on through it all.
Carmen Jones By Oscar Hammerstein II, Based on Meilhac and Halevys adapation of Prosper Mérimées Carmen, Music by Georges Bizet (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 6f, 10m)
Set in a Southern town during World War II, Oscar Hammerstein’s adaptation of Carmen captures the romance and tragedy of Bizet’s melodic opera with a distinctly American flavor. In addition to the fiery and mercurial title character, the show features several strong roles for Black women, including Franki, Myrt and Cindy Lou.
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope Music and Lyrics by Micki Grant, Conceived by Vinnette Caroll (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical / 6f, 6m)
A Tony nominee as Best Musical of the season, this dynamic mixture of rock, calypso and ballads utilizes a dozen singer/dancers in twenty numbers. In revue format, Don’t Bother Me… celebrates the African American experience with vibrant song and dance.
Dreamgirls Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen / Music by Henry Krieger (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 4f, 4m +Ensemble)
From passionate, combustible Effie to cool-headed, ambitious Deena to impertinent, sharp-tongued Lorrell, Dreamgirls offers a banquet of delicious roles for Black actresses. Chronicling one group’s rise to the top, the groundbreaking musical is a sweeping and inspirational journey through 20th-century American pop music.
Hallelujah, Baby! Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Dramatic Comedy / 3f, 2m + Ensemble)
Through the struggles and triumphs of a determined, talented and resilient leading lady, Hallelujah, Baby! celebrates the African American experience in the first half of the 20th century. Leslie Uggams won the 1968 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her tour-de-force portrayal of Georgia Franklin, a young woman who rises from domestic work in the 1920s to stardom in the late 1960s—all without aging a day.
It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues by Dan Wheetman, Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 3f, 4m)
This sizzling revue of the blues and blues-infused songs that changed the way the world hears the human heartbeat took New York by storm. Ravishing songs trace the evolution of the blues from Africa to Mississippi to Memphis to Chicago.
Jamaica Music by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, Book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Dramatic Comedy / 3f, 3m)
Set on a small fictional island off the Jamaican coast, Jamaica weaves romance, comedy, and social commentary as an unspoiled island community fights the encroaching forces of commercialism. The Calypso-inflected score from Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg features the songs “Savannah,” “Push the Button” and “Ain’t It The Truth?”
Klook and Vinette by Che Walker, Anoushka Lucas, Omar Lyefook (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 1f, 1m)
Klook is a drifter who’s gotten too old to drift. Vinette is on the run but she doesn’t know what’s chasing her. Together they make a tentative stab at happiness, before the past they are evading begins to catch up with them. Tough, tender, funny and poignant, Klook and Vinette will grab you from the inside out. Soulful music and a lyrical text make this a mesmerizing theatre experience
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill by Lanie Robertson (US)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 1f, 1m)
The time is 1959. The place is a seedy bar in Philadelphia. The audience is about to witness one of Billie Holiday’s last performances, given four months before her death. More than a dozen musical numbers are interlaced with salty, often humorous reminiscences to project a riveting portrait of the fascinating lady and her music.
The Life Music by Cy Coleman, Lyrics by Ira Gasman, Book by David Newman, Ira Gasman and Cy Coleman (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 5f, 5m)
Lillias White won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Sonya in this gritty, powerful, funny and explosive musical about street workers plying “The Oldest Profession” in 1980s Times Square. With a broad range of roles for women, and the bond of female friendship at its core, The Life offers several strong opportunities for Black actresses to shine.
Mahalia by Tom Stolz (US)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 2f, 1m)
Featuring gospel songs, hymns and spirituals made famous by Mahalia Jackson, Mahalia is a joyous celebration of the life and music of the world’s greatest gospel singer: a humble, deeply religious woman whose expressive, full-throated voice carried
her from a three room shanty in New Orleans to appearances before presidents and royalty.
Marie Christine Words and Music by Michael John LaChiusa (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 10f, 6m, 2 boys)
Set in the twilight years of the 19th century, Marie Christine chronicles its doomed heroine’s journey from her genteel life of privilege in New Orleans Creole society through betrayal and incomprehensible vengeance in boisterous Chicago. This gripping tale of one headstrong and passionate young woman’s all-consuming love for an ambitious sea captain provides a tour-de-force for its leading lady.
Porgy and Bess® by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 4f, 4m +Ensemble)
Recognized worldwide as a masterpiece and an American Folk Opera, Porgy and Bess features one of theatre’s great leading roles in the character of Bess. Jaded, beaten and addicted to heroin, Bess appears beyond hope until she finds unconditional love with Porgy. Wrestling with her demons, Bess struggles to overcome her past and find true happiness.
Purlie Book by Ossie Davis, Phillip Rose and Peter Udell, Music by Gary Geld, Lyrics by Peter Udell (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Comedy / 4f, 4m +Ensemble)
Melba Moore won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Lutiebelle in this ebullient musical adaptation of Ossie Davis’ play Purlie Victorious. When a strutting, newfangled preacher man returns to his small hometown in Georgia, he wants a church and he wants freedom for the men and women working the plantation. With the help of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, Purlie sets out to meet his goals.
Raisin Book by Robert Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg / Music by Judd Woldin / Lyrics by Robert Brittan / Based on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 6f, 9m)
This pulsating, inspirational musical adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun wowed audiences and won the 1974 Tony Award for Best Musical. The roles of Mama, Ruth and Beneatha offer actresses great material to sink their teeth into; Virginia Capers won a Tony for her portrayal of Mama Lena Younger, whose powerful anthem “Measure the Valleys” anchors the show.
Storyville Music and Lyrics by Mildred Kayden, Book by Ed Bullins (US)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 6f, 6m +Ensemble)
A rousing musical set in 1917 New Orleans, Storyville is a tale of love and jazz music. When a notorious prize fight sends New Orleans’ musicians, bands and entertainers “rollin’ up the river” to the North, jazz becomes America’s musical gift to the world.
The Wiz by William F. Brown, Charlie Smalls (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Comedy / 5f, 6m, 4 any gender)
This lively, irrepressible reimagining of The Wizard of Oz provides a wealth of great roles for Black women, including: stern but loving Aunt Em; goofy, well-intentioned Addaperle; regal, wise Glinda; and brash, loud, deliciously malevolent Evillene. Of course, guiding audiences through the whole journey is naive, headstrong Dorothy, who sings beloved songs like “Be A Lion” and “Home.”
Well-Behaved Women by Carmel Dean (US/UK)
(Musical Revue, Drama / 9f)
This contemporary song cycle for 4 to 20+ women is a celebration of many historic women who fought to have their voices heard and bravely made their mark on the world. Woman such as Billie Jean King, Frida Kahlo, Harriet Tubman, Cleopatra and Malala Yousafzai bring their incredible stories to life through powerful, emotional and often hilarious songs, leaving audiences entertained, moved and inspired.
Header Image: 2018 Classic Stage Company production of Carmen Jones (Joan Marcus)