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February 18, 2021

Plays and Musicals with Great Roles for Black Men


A clean-cut U.S. Army captain investigating a brutal murder; a scrappy boxer fighting for recognition and redemption; a slick record producer faking his way to the top; and a young gay man navigating his way through churches, bars and motel rooms. Below, delve into a variety of plays and musicals featuring compelling and gutsy roles written specifically for Black actors.

A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick by Kia Corthron (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2w, 2m, 1 boy)
A Cool Dip offers glimpses into the lives of Abebe, a young Ethiopian man with a passion for the unlikely combination of Christianity and ecology, and the family that houses him during his college studies in Maryland. Through their interactions, the play uncompromisingly tackles the issues of drought and social injustice, bringing attention to the scarcity of something we so often take for granted: water.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3w, 7m, 1 boy)
Set on Chicago’s South Side, Lorraine Hansberry’s game-changing play revolves around the divergent dreams and conflicts within three generations of the Younger family: son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth, his sister Beneatha, his son Travis, and matriarch Lena. When her deceased husband’s insurance money comes through, Mama Lena dreams of moving to a new home and a better neighborhood in Chicago, but her children have other plans. The Younger family’s heroic struggle to retain dignity in a harsh and changing world is a searing and timeless document of hope and inspiration.

A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 13m)
Charles Fuller’s 1982 play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In a segregated Louisiana army camp in 1944, Vernon C. Waters, the sergeant of a Black company, has been murdered. Richard Davenport, a Black captain, is assigned to investigate, and he discovers deep-seated hatred and corruption among the men in the company. Despite each soldier’s motive for the killing, Davenport eventually solves the case, revealing a truth more shocking than the murder itself.

A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Dramatic Comedy / 1w, 6m)
Meet Usher: a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical, Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, blisteringly funny masterwork exposes the heart and soul of a young artist grappling with desires, identity and instincts he both loves and loathes. Bold and heartfelt in its truth-telling, A Strange Loop is the big, Black and queer-ass Great American Musical for all! 

Ain’t No Mo’ by Jordan E. Cooper (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Comedy / 4w, 2m)
Through a blend of sketch, satire, avant-garde theatre and a dose of drag, Ain’t No Mo’ answers the incendiary question: What if the United States government offered Black Americans one-way plane tickets to Africa? This unpredictable comedy speeds through the turbulent skies of being Black in today’s America. A kaleidoscope of moments surrounding this great exodus are told by an ensemble cast featuring Peaches, a larger-than-life flight agent boarding the final plane leaving the United States.

August Wilson’s Fences by August Wilson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2w, 5m)
This sensational drama starred James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson, a former star of the Negro baseball leagues who now works as a garbage man in 1957 Pittsburgh. Excluded as a Black man from the major leagues during his prime, Troy’s bitterness takes its toll on his relationships with his wife and his son, who now wants his own chance to play ball. Denzel Washington took on the lead role in the 2010 Broadway revival and the 2014 film adaptation.

August Wilson’s Jitney by August Wilson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 1w, 8m)
In the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1970, a group of Black men struggle to make a living as drivers for a makeshift taxi company. Owner Jim Becker’s son, Clarence, returns from prison just as the cab company faces a critical juncture. Deep animosities and long-held grudges come to the surface, jeopardizing the prospects for the drivers, who include alcoholic Fielding, gossipy, comical Turnbo, and earnest, decent Youngblood.

August Wilson’s King Hedley II by August Wilson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2w, 4m)
Peddling stolen refrigerators in the feeble hope of making enough money to open a video store, King Hedley, a man whose self worth is built on self delusion, is scraping in the dirt of an urban backyard trying to plant seeds where nothing will grow. Drawing on characters established in Seven Guitars, King Hedley II shows the shadows of the past reaching into the present as King seeks retribution for a lie perpetrated by his mother regarding the identity of his father.

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3w, 5m)
In 1936, Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh from the South in a battered truck loaded with watermelons to sell. He wants to sell a piano that has great importance to his family, but he shares ownership with his sister Berniece, and the piano sits in her living room. Berniece has already rejected several offers, because the antique piano is covered with beautiful carvings detailing the family’s rise from slavery. Boy Willie argues that the past is past, but Berniece proves to be more formidable than he anticipated.

Avenue X by by John Jiler and Ray Leslee (US)
(Full-Length Musical, Dramatic Comedy / 2w, 6m )
This groundbreaking off-Broadway hit, a 90-minute a cappella musical set in Brooklyn in 1963, explores racial tension through the eyes of the neighborhood’s Black and Italian residents. The show’s dynamic roles include streetwise, headstrong Milton, his West Indian buddy Winston, and Roscoe, a clever but embittered middle-aged aged man whose talent has gone to seed.

Bootycandy by Robert O’Hara (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Satire / 2w, 3m)
Robert O’Hara’s semi-autobiographical subversive comedy weaves together scenes, sermons, sketches, and daring meta-theatrics to create a kaleidoscopic portrayal of growing up gay and Black. Sutter is on an outrageous odyssey through his childhood home, his church, dive bars, motel rooms, and even nursing homes.

Dreamgirls by Tom Eyen, Henry Krieger, Michael Bennett, Harold Wheeler (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 4w, 4m +Ensemble)
A sweeping and inspirational journey through 20th century American pop music, Dreamgirls chronicles one Motown group’s rise from obscurity to superstardom. Through gospel, R&B, smooth pop, disco and more, Dreamgirls explores themes of ambition, hope and betrayal, all set in the glamorous and competitive world of the entertainment industry.

East Texas Hot Links by Eugene Lee (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Dramatic Comedy / 1w, 7m)
In summer 1955 in the piney woods of East Texas, local men wander into Charlesetta’s Top o’ the Hill Cafe for comfort, solace and companionship. Times are changing, the Klan is active and young Black men have been disappearing or turning up dead. This night, Delmus wants to celebrate getting a new job but the other regulars are skeptical. Eventually, betrayal catches all of them, and life at Top o’ the Hill is changed forever.

Emergency by Daniel Beaty (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Dramatic Comedy / 1m) said, “Daniel Beaty’s explosive, affecting solo play Emergency may be the most important new American drama since Angels in America.” A slave ship emerges out of the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty, sending NYC into a frenzy. Emergency is an intricately woven, urgent, witty and moving exploration of our shared humanity and what it means to be free.

False Creeds by Darren Canady (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 4w, 2m)
After receiving a “memory box” from his dying grandmother containing photos and journals related to the Tulsa race massacre, young Jason realizes his family’s history is profoundly connected to the tragic events. Set mostly in flashbacks to the affluent, predominately African-American Greenwood neighborhood, Canady’s play follows Jason as he witnesses one night of terror and destruction through the eyes of a young girl (his grandmother) who is forced into adulthood by the tragedy.

Fat Ham by James Ijames (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Dramatic Comedy / 3w, 4m)
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Ijames reinvents Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet with his new drama, a delectable comic tragedy. Juicy is a queer, Southern college kid, already grappling with some serious questions of identity, when the ghost of his father shows up in their backyard, demanding that Juicy avenge his murder. From an uproarious family barbecue emerges a compelling examination of love and loss through the eyes of a self-aware young Black man trying to break the cycles of trauma and violence.

Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 by Suzan-Lori Parks (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2w, 8m)
This explosively powerful drama concerns the mess of war, the cost of freedom, and the heartbreak of love, with all three parts presented in one night. Offered his freedom if he joins his master in the ranks of the Confederacy, Hero, a slave, must choose whether to leave the woman and people he loves for what may be yet another empty promise.

Feeding Beatrice by Kirsten Greenidge (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Dramatic Comedy / 2w, 2m)
Kirsten Greenidge’s spine-chilling gothic tale, about a contemporary Black couple haunted by the ghost of a young white girl, deftly explores questions of race, class and the American Dream. June and Lurie have a haunting new houseguest – and she’s ravenously hungry. They do their best to keep her fed and happy, but Beatrice always demands more. As she burrows deeper and deeper into their lives, the couple faces a horrific question: What will it cost to exorcise Beatrice forever?  

Golden Boy by William Gibson, Clifford Odets, Charles Strouse, Lee Adams (US)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 4w, 17m)
Adapted from Clifford Odets’ classic drama, Golden Boy is the tale of a young Black man from Harlem trying to rise up out of the ghetto to fame in the brutal world of boxing. The rousing musical play begins and ends with the rhythmic, breathing exhaust of the prizefighting ring. Sammy Davis originated the lead role of Joe Wellington, a promising boxer who makes one mistake: falling in love with his manager’s girl, a seen-it-all white woman named Lorna.

Goodnight, Tyler by B.J. Tindal (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Dark Comedy / 3w, 3m)
Goodnight, Tyler is the ghost-love story of Tyler Evans, a dead Black man who wants to be remembered for who he was rather than how he died. Only able to speak with his childhood best friend, Davis, Tyler demands his “legacy” be protected. He wants to make peace before he leaves behind Chelsea, his fiancée; Drew, his college buddy; and his grandmother, Fannie (all of whom consider themselves Tyler’s “favorite”). A contemporary and unexpectedly humorous drama.

Home by Samm-Art Williams (US)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2w, 1m)
Produced to great acclaim by the Negro Ensemble Company in a production that later transferred to Broadway, this brilliantly inventive, lyrically expressive play deals joyfully with the coming of age of a young Black man from rural North Carolina. Optimistic and strong, Cephus Miles travels from his small town to the big city, where he is imprisoned for opposing the Vietnam War. After declining physically and emotionally, he ultimately finds redemption by returning to the place of his roots.

How I Learned What I Learned by August Wilson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Dramatic Comedy / 1m)
From Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson comes a one-man show that chronicles his life as a Black artist in the Hill District in Pittsburgh. From stories about his first jobs to his first loves and his experiences with racism, Wilson recounts his life from his roots to the completion of The American Century Cycle. How I Learned What I Learned gives an inside look into one of the most celebrated playwriting voices of the 20th century.

In the Wine Time by Ed Bullins (US)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 6w, 8m)
Ed Bullins’ portrait of three men in a poor neighborhood in the late 1950s grapples with issues of violence, sex, addiction and the unbreakable cycle of poverty. Lou, Cliff and their nephew Ray Dawson live on a small side street in a poor neighborhood. Every evening, seeking respite from the heat, they go to their front porch to drink and observe the world around them as it’s consumed by violence, sex and addiction. One night, after an act of violence, Cliff makes a sacrifice enabling Ray to rise above his present circumstance.

Jelly’s Last Jam by George C. Wolfe, Susan Birkenhead, Jelly Roll Morton and Luther Henderson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Dramatic Comedy / 8w, 10m)
A dynamic investigation of the life and work of composer/musician Jelly Roll Morton, Jelly’s Last Jam is a vital piece of African American history set to a splashy, vibrant score from one of America’s greatest composers. Journey from the back alleys of New Orleans to the dance halls of Chicago to the stages of New York with “he who drinks from the vine of syncopation” in a sizzling memoir of pride, lust and a past denied. 

John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night (US)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2w, 8m)
Acclaimed playwright Matt Pelfrey’s adaptation of John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night is based on the award-winning book, which inspired an Oscar-winning film and an Emmy-winning television series. It’s 1962. A hot August night lies heavy over the small town of Argo, Alabama. A dead white man is discovered, and the local police arrest a Black stranger named Virgil Tibbs, who becomes the racially tense community’s single hope in solving a brutal murder that is turning up no witnesses, no motives and no clues.

Klook and Vinette by Che Walker, Anoushka Lucas, Omar Lyefook (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 1w, 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.

Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry, Robert Nemiroff (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3w, 8m, 5 any gender, 1 boy or girl)
Named Best American Play of 1970, Les Blancs prophetically confronts the hope and tragedy of Africa in revolution. At a white Christian mission in a colony about to explode, Tshembe Matoseh, the English-educated son of a chief, has come home to bury his father. He finds his teenage brother a near-alcoholic and his older brother a priest and traitor to his people. Forswearing politics and wanting only to return to his wife and child in England, Tshembe is drawn into the conflict, symbolized by a woman dancer, the powerful Spirit of Africa who pursues him.

“Master Harold”…and the Boys by Athol Fugard (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3m)
This searing coming-of-age story is considered by many to be Fugard’s masterpiece. A white teen who has grown up in the affectionate company of the two Black waiters who work in his mother’s tea room in Port Elizabeth learns that his viciously racist, alcoholic father is on his way home from the hospital. An ensuing rage unwittingly triggers his inevitable passage into the culture of hatred fostered by apartheid.

Nat Turner in Jerusalem by Nathan Alan Davis (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2m)
In August 1831, Nat Turner led a slave uprising that shook the conscience of the nation. Nathan Alan Davis’s timely new play imagines Turner’s final night in a jail cell in Jerusalem, Virginia, as he is revisited by attorney Thomas R. Gray to reckon with what has passed and what the dawn will bring. Woven with vivid imagery and indelible lyricism, Nat Turner in Jerusalem examines the power of an individual’s resolute convictions and their seismic reverberations through time.

Native Son by Nambi E. Kelley, Richard Wright (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 4w, 5m)
Richard Wright’s iconic novel about oppression, freedom and justice comes to life onstage in this groundbreaking adaptation. Suffocating in rat-infested poverty on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s, 20-year-old Bigger Thomas struggles to find a place for himself in a world whose prejudice has shut him out. After taking a job in a wealthy white man’s house, Bigger unwittingly unleashes a series of events that violently and irrevocably seal his fate.

Paradise Blue by Dominique Morisseau (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2w, 3m)
Blue, a gifted trumpeter, contemplates selling his once-vibrant jazz club in Detroit’s Blackbottom neighborhood to shake free the demons of his past and better his life. This dynamic and musically-infused drama shines light on the challenges of building a better future on the foundation of what our predecessors have left us.

Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3m)
A provocative riff on Waiting for Godot, Pass Over is a rare piece of politically charged theater by a bold new American voice. Moses and Kitch stand around on the corner – talking shit, passing the time, and hoping that maybe today will be different. As they dream of their promised land, a stranger wanders into their space with his own agenda and derails their plans.

Porgy and Bess® by George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, Ira Gershwin (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 4w, 4m +Ensemble)
In Catfish Row, a Black waterfront community in South Carolina, a decent, disabled man named Porgy nearly wins the heart of beautiful, troubled Bess. With rich, complex characters, weighty themes, high drama and broad comedy, all set to gorgeous jazz-inflected orchestral music, Porgy and Bess® remains one of the stage’s greatest love stories.

Purlie Victorious® by Ossie Davis (US)
(Full-Length Play, Comedy / 3w, 6m )
In this rollicking comedy, dynamic traveling preacher Purlie Victorious Judson returns to his small Georgia town hoping to save Big Bethel, the community’s church, and emancipate the cotton pickers who work on oppressive Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee’s plantation. With the assistance of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, Purlie hopes to pry loose from Cotchipee an inheritance due his long-lost cousin and use the money to achieve his goals.

Raisin by Lorraine Hansberry, Robert Nemiroff, Judd Woldin, Charlotte Zaltzberg, Robert Brittan (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 6w, 8m, 1 boy)
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. Built upon the dynamic role of Walter Lee, this soulful, inspiring musical depicting a proud Black family’s quest for a better life explodes in song, dance and incisive human drama.

Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Dramatic Comedy / 4f, 4m)
Nominated for a record twelve 2020 Tony Awards, Jeremy O. Harris’ groundbreaking play astonished critics and audiences alike. The Old South lives on at the MacGregor Plantation—in the breeze, in the cotton fields… and in the crack of the whip. Nothing is as it seems, and yet everything is as it seems. Slave Play rips apart history to shed new light on the nexus of race, gender and sexuality in 21st-century America.

The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler (US)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3w, 10m)
Howard Sackler’s celebrated play, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award, explores racism and segregation in a fictionalized portrait of boxing champion Jack Johnson. James Earl Jones won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his powerful performance as “Jack Jefferson,” a role The New York Times called “A great part – a tragic hero, cheated, degraded, and at last brutally beaten.”

The Light by Loy A. Webb (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 1w, 1m)
A surprise proposal gift puts the future of Genesis and Rashad’s relationship at risk when they are forced to confront a devastating secret from the past. The Light is a 70-minute, real-time rollercoaster ride of laughter, romance and despair that uncovers how the power of radical love can be a healing beacon of light.

The Royale by Marco Ramirez (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 1w, 4m)
Jay “The Sport” Jackson dreams of being the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. But it’s 1905, and in the racially segregated world of boxing, his chances are as good as knocked out. Through the sights and sounds of the early 20th century boxing circuit, The Royale examines society’s relationship with our present-day cultural heroes and the responsibilities that are thrust upon them when they find themselves outside of the ropes.

The Train Driver by Athol Fugard (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2m)
Roelf, a train driver, has spent weeks searching for the identities of a mother and child he unintentionally killed with his train. After a fruitless journey through shanty towns, he encounters an old gravedigger named Simon who helps the desperate man unburden his conscience. Based on a true story, The Train Driver is a soulful exploration of guilt, suffering, and the powerful bonds that grow between strangers.

The View UpStairs by Max Vernon (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 2w, 8m)
When a young fashion designer from 2017 buys an abandoned building in the French Quarter of New Orleans, he finds himself transported to the UpStairs Lounge, a vibrant 70s gay bar, sparking an exhilarating journey of self-exploration that spans two generations of queer history. This smash off-Broadway hit, featuring a gritty glam-rock score and a tight-knit ensemble of unforgettable characters, asks what has been gained and lost in the fight for equality, and how the past can help guide all of us through an uncertain future.

The Wiz by William F. Brown, Charlie Smalls (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Comedy / 5w, 6m, 4 any gender)
A beloved Broadway gem, The Wiz infuses L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with a dazzling mix of rock, gospel and soul music. The title role, originated by André De Shields, is a powerhouse tour-de-force for a charismatic actor, and the show is populated with dynamic parts for men. From the naïve Scarecrow to the classy Tin Man to the bombastic but hilarious Lion, The Wiz offers a variety of great male roles in a fun, family-friendly, modern musical.

This Bitter Earth by Harrison David Rivers (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2m)
Intimate, romantic and devastating, this gripping new play about a young Black writer and his white lover, a Black Lives Matter activist, asks, “What is the real cost of standing on the sidelines?” Over the years, Jesse and Neil negotiate the complex “firsts” of their relationship against a backdrop of political demonstrations and discord. With history unfolding around them every day, Jesse and Neil must contend with the fact that, no matter their response to social turmoil, they cannot remain untouched by it.

Through the Night by Daniel Beaty (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Dramatic Comedy / 1m)
Daniel Beaty’s one-man show Through the Night is a timely and inspiring story of possibility and hope, weaving together a unique blend of humor, poetry, music, and drama. It portrays a community of people who experience an unexpected epiphany on the same evening that changes their lives forever.

Where We Stand by Donnetta Lavinia Grays (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 1 any gender)
In a town running low on compassion, an exile seeks forgiveness, forcing the community to decide between mercy or justice. The storyteller spins a tale of a lonely soul tempted by the devil’s kindness on a fateful trip to the crossroads. Where We Stand is an epic fable of penance filled with humor, heart and music. 

For more great plays and musicals, visit the Concord Theatricals website in the US or UK.

Photo: 2020 Broadway production of A Soldier’s Play (Joan Marcus)