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February 18, 2021

Plays and Musicals with Great Roles for Black Men

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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.

Bootycandy by Robert O’Hara (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Satire / 2f, 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. Uproarious satire crashes headlong into the murky terrain of pain and pleasure and… Bootycandy.

A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick by Kia Corthron (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2f, 2m, 1 boy)

A Cool Dip offers glimpses into the lives of Abebe, a young Ethopian 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, combining a realistic evocation of human emotion with the fantastical to bring attention to the scarcity of something we so often take for granted: water.

Dreamgirls by Tom Eyen, Henry Krieger, Michael Bennett, Harold Wheeler (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 4f, 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 / 1f, 7m)

It’s summer, 1955, in the piney woods of East Texas where local men wander into Charlesetta’s Top o’ the Hill Cafe almost every night 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. They try to warn him as they joke, feed the jukebox and play cards until 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. An explosive play where rhythm, rhyme and remembrance rise.

False Creeds by Darren Canady (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 4f, 2m)

The story of Jason, a young man who embarks on a journey to discover the legacy of his family’s past. After receiving a “memory box” from his dying grandmother containing photos and journals related to the Tulsa race massacre, 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. This ambitious and timely play does not linger in pathos, but instead celebrates the importance of family history and the triumph of those who survived and began new lives.

Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 by Suzan-Lori Parks (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2f, 8m)

Father Comes Home From the Wars is an explosively powerful drama about 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. As his decision brings him face-to-face with a nation at war with itself, the loved ones Hero left behind debate whether to escape or wait for his return…only to discover that for Hero, free will may have come at a great spiritual cost. Father Comes Home From the Wars is an explosively powerful drama about the mess of war, the cost of freedom, and the heartbreak of love, with all three parts seen in one night. Part 1 introduces us to Hero. In Part 2, a band of rebel soldiers test Hero’s loyalty as the cannons approach. Part 3 finds Hero’s loved ones anxiously awaiting his return.

August Wilson’s Fences by August Wilson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2f, 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 Broadw
ay revival and the 2014 film adaptation.

Golden Boy by William Gibson, Clifford Odets, Charles Strouse, Lee Adams (US)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 4f, 17m)

Adapted from Clifford Odets’ classic drama, Golden Boy is the tale of Joe Wellington, 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, whom he loves not wisely but all too well. Songs in the bracing, contemporary score include “I Wanna Be With You,” “This Is the Life,” “Night Song” and “Colorful.”

Goodnight, Tyler by B.J. Tindal (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Dark Comedy / 3f, 3m)

“Tyler Evans was a beloved best friend, grandson, mentor, and (almost) husband.” “Tyler Evans was a young Black man killed by a police officer.” 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.

The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler (US)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3f, 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.”

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.

John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night (US)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2f, 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. The police discover that their prime suspect is in fact a homicide detective from California. As it happens, Tibbs becomes the racially-tense community’s single hope in solving a brutal murder that is turning up no witnesses, no motives, and no clues.

In the Wine Time by Ed Bullins (US)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 6f, 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. As the neighbors’ competing radios play (the Dawsons play rhythm ‘n’ blues while Miss Minnie Garrison plays gospel) the men drink and talk, unable to break the cycle of poverty. Ray is trying to go to school and improv his circumstances, but his unemployed uncle Cliff wants him to join the navy. One night, after an act of violence, Cliff makes a sacrifice enabling Ray to have a future and rise above his present circumstance.

August Wilson’s Jitney by August Wilson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 1f, 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. With humor, conflict, and rich, complex characters, Jitney is an integral component of Wilson’s celebrated Century Cycle.

August Wilson’s King Hedley II by August Wilson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2f, 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. Getting, spending, killing and dying in a world where getting is hard and killing is commonplace are threads woven into this 1980’s installment in the author’s renowned cycle of plays about the Black experience in America. 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.

Klook and Vinette by Che Walker, Anoushka Lucas, Omar Lyefook (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 1f, 1m)< /p>

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 mesmerising theatre experience.

Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry, Robert Nemiroff (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3f, 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. The setting is a white Christian mission in a colony about to explode. The time is that hour of reckoning when no one the guilty nor the innocent can evade the consequences of white colonialism and imperatives of black liberation. 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.

The Light by Loy A. Webb (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 1f, 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

“Master Harold”…and the Boys by Athol Fugard (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3m)

The role that won Zakes Mokae a Tony® Award brought Danny Glover back to the New York stage for the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of this searing coming-of-age story, 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. Turner’s startling account of his prophecy and the insurrection was recorded and published by attorney Thomas R. Gray. Nathan Alan Davis writes a timely new play that imagines Turner’s final night in a jail cell in Jerusalem, Virginia, as he is revisited by Gray and they 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 / 4f, 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, twenty-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. Adapted with theatrical ingenuity by Chicago’s own Nambi E. Kelley, this Native Son captures the power of Richard Wright’s novel for a whole new generation.

Paradise Blue by Dominique Morisseau (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 2f, 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. But where does that leave his devoted Pumpkin, who has dreams of her own? And what does it mean for the club’s resident bebop band? When a mysterious woman with a walk that drives men mad comes to town with her own plans, everyone’s world is turned upside down. 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. Emotional and lyrical, Pass Over crafts everyday profanities into poetic and humorous riffs, exposing the unquestionable human spirit of young men stuck in a cycle just looking for a way out.

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3f, 5m)

It is 1936, and Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh from the South in a battered truck loaded with watermelons to sell. He has an opportunity to buy some land down home, but he has to come up with the money right quick. He wants to sell an old piano that has been in his family for generations, but he shares ownership with his sister and it sits in her living room. She has already rejected several offers because the antique piano is covered with incredible carvings detailing the family’s rise from slavery. Boy Willie tries to persuade his st
ubborn sister that the past is past, but she is more formidable than he anticipated.

Porgy and Bess® by George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, Ira Gershwin (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 4f, 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. Known worldwide as a masterpiece and an “American Folk Opera,” Porgy and Bess® was George Gershwin’s final work for the musical stage.

Raisin by Lorraine Hansberry, Robert Nemiroff, Judd Woldin, Charlotte Zaltzberg, Robert Brittan (US/UK)
(Full-Length Musical, Drama / 6f, 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, originally played by Joe Morton, Raisin ran for three years on Broadway and enjoyed a record-breaking national tour. This soulful, inspiring musical depicting a proud Black family’s quest for a better life explodes in song, dance and incisive human drama.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 3f, 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. Walter Lee, a chauffeur, has other plans: buying a liquor store and being his own man. Beneatha dreams of medical school. The tensions and prejudice they face form this seminal American drama. 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.

The Royale by Marco Ramirez (US/UK)
(Full-Length Play, Drama / 1f, 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. When a crooked boxing promoter hatches a plan for “the fight of the century,” “The Sport” just might land a place in the ring with the reigning white heavyweight champion. 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. Loosely based on real events, The Royale brings to explosive life the ultimate fight for a place in history.

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.

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. Captain Taylor, the white C.O., worries the murderer may be a white officer or the local Klan. Richard Davenport, a Black captain, is assigned to investigate. Taylor, fearing the assignment of a Black investigator means the case is to be swept under the rug, attempts to discourage Davenport. But Davenport perseveres, discovering deep-seated hatred and corruption among the 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.

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?”

At the Million Hoodie March in 2012, Jesse, a young black man, encounters Neil, a young white man who has unwittingly found himself at the front of the crowd with a megaphone in his hand. Flash forward several weeks, and Jesse and Neil have begun dating. But as the months pass and Neill works his way further into the world of activism, Jesse never enters it. 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.

The Train Driver by At
hol 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 / 2f, 8m)

When Wes, 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 seventies gay bar. As this forgotten community comes to life, Wes embarks on an exhilarating journey of self-exploration that spans two generations of queer history. This smash Off Broadway hit features a gritty, glam rock score and a tight-knit ensemble of unforgettable characters. The View UpStairs 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 / 5f, 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.

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)