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What Broadway is showing us about grief

A bounty of Black-led shows are responding to our most difficult questions surrounding loss

The last show I saw before the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down was the Tony Award-winning revival of A Soldier’s Play, a drama about the mysterious murder of a Black soldier stationed in Louisiana in the 1940s. I think about that night often, how we had no idea the ways our own reality would change within weeks.

It reminds me of another significant event in my life. I was 21 years old the first time I went to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day. It seemed like a rite of passage for a G.R.I.T. (girl raised in the South) to set foot on Bourbon Street, to gulp down a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s and soak it up with a beignet from Cafe Du Monde.

Back then, I also noticed something else. People seemed to measure time as before Hurricane Katrina and after. It was 2011 and it had been six years since Katrina devastated the city, but there were still shadows on the ground where shopping centers once stood. Highway exits were barricaded. Red X’s spray-painted next to body count numbers still marked doors in the 9th Ward. That trauma was palpable to me.

Theater artists were there capturing the devastation, compiling anthologies such as The Katrina Project and Katrina On Stage. But now, what seemed localized to New Orleans and other cities wrecked by natural disasters — this measuring of time in trauma — lives with all of us. Everyone has experienced loss during the coronavirus pandemic, both experiential and existential. The latter gnaws at the heart of the nation as we are forced to confront the moral issues raised by racism, sexism and xenophobia.

On Broadway, the urgency to speak to the moment is there. The Great White Way went dark for 18 months, and during that time the industry was forced to confront the way it perpetuates injustice. There’s a gross lack of diversity on and offstage — 58.6% of roles went to white actors in the 2018-19 season, and in a given season 80% of designers are men. And sexual assault accusations against leading producers were rampant. This pause in production jump-started the engine on a moral conversation about empowerment versus subjugation in the theater.

One of Broadway’s most visible responses to this moment of reckoning is the presence of more new plays by Black playwrights as well as more shows starring Black actors. There are currently 10 shows on Broadway right now starring Black actors. Six of them were written by Black writers. This is a vast improvement from the total of 20 in the decade preceding this moment.

Director Danya Taymor (left) and playwright Antoinette Nwandu (center) during the curtain call for Pass Over on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre Aug. 4 in New York City.

Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

Broadway returned in August with Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over as the first new play to usher in the season. In Pass Over, two Black men, Moses and Kitch, find themselves stuck in an environment where they face endless police harassment and gun violence. The play, based on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2017. There’s a poignant moment in the play when Moses and Kitch say the names of all of their friends who have been killed due to gun violence, which is a bit like repeatedly stepping on a nail after the protests following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

This theme continues in Thoughts of a Colored Man by Keenan Scott II. The production stars a number of television actors, including Da’Vinchi (All American), Luke James (The Chi) and Tristan Mack Wilds (The Wire). The play is a series of vignettes that capture moments in the lives of ordinary Black men, such as having a baby and falling in love. Scott aims to show the range of Black male identity, from the upwardly mobile buppie to the young dude hustling for women and cash. Yet in the end, none of them can escape losing a friend to police violence. 

Besides law enforcement, the pandemic has forced us to consider the way systems treat those who are less fortunate. In Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s one-man show Lackawanna Blues, he reflects on being raised in a boarding house in upstate New York. He embodies two dozen characters, most of whom have been discarded by society. There are veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, women fleeing domestic violence and people with mental illnesses. They all find themselves at Rachel’s because she doesn’t run credit checks or require a deposit, proving that offering people a safe place to live doesn’t have to be hard.

From left to right in Broadway’s production of Thoughts of a Colored Man: Luke James, Esau Pritchett, Da’Vinchi, Forrest McClendon, Dyllón Burnside, Tristan Mack Wilds and Bryan Terrell Clark.

Julieta Cervantes

Alice Childress’ comedy Trouble In Mind tackles an even larger system by challenging stereotypical depictions of Black people onstage. Six decades ago, in many ways, Childress was calling for Broadway to confront the very issues it’s dealing with in this season. The play focuses on an actress, Wiletta Mayer (played by LaChanze), who is tired of playing a maid and risks losing what could be the role of a lifetime in order to give her character more depth. Trouble In Mind had a successful off-Broadway run in 1955 and was due for a Broadway transfer, but Childress allegedly refused to make producers’ revisions.

The thread that ties these plays together — and to us — is grief. Wiletta is mourning the loss of her career. Moses and Kitch are grieving everyone they’ve lost to gun violence. And the characters depicted in Lackawanna Blues are mourning the lives they left behind before arriving at that boarding house in Lackawanna, New York.

Perhaps Douglas Lyons found the answer in Chicken & Biscuits, which is set at a funeral. In this dysfunctional family comedy, which closed Nov. 28 due to multiple actors contracting COVID-19, granddaddy’s funeral is almost secondary to the sibling rivalries and family secrets unfolding just outside the chapel. What Lyons along with the other new plays by Black playwrights capture so well, is that there’s loss and then there’s letting go. Loss is a part of life, and it is difficult, but letting go can make it easier to endure.

Alana Raquel Bowers (left) and Devere Rogers (right) on the set of Chicken & Biscuits.

Emilio Madrid

The events that have occurred since the beginning of the pandemic pushed many of us to make difficult, but necessary decisions about what to let go of and who to hold onto. Sometimes it is a shedding of people, places and ideas that no longer serve our destiny. But as the artists who continued to write and perform new plays throughout the pandemic have shown us, in loss there is also opportunity. This is the new Reconstruction era, and the way we value each other today will have consequences for years to come. If we take the artists’ lead, we can become a nation where everyone’s stories have their time in the limelight.

Kelundra Smith is a theatre critic, playwright and arts journalist whose mission is to connect people to cultural experiences and each other. Her work appears in The New York Times, Food & Wine, American Theatre, Bitter Southerner, Atlanta Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association Executive Committee, and she also teaches workshops about addressing cultural identity in cultural criticism at theaters and universities across the country. Follow her on Twitter @pieceofkay or Instagram @anotherpieceofkay for musings on life, art and everything else.