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Broadway Black Actors And The Legacy of Activism

Black actors on Broadway have a long legacy of being activists for social change. Paul Robeson was famously quoted as saying, “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”  The tradition of Black actors on Broadway using their talent and name recognition in order to advance a variety of causes, particularly issues that deal with civil rights, has carried out for almost as long as Broadway has existed.

Perhaps most prominently, Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis were civil rights activists.  Known for her work with the American Negro Theatre and roles in “Do the Right Thing” and “American Gangster,” Dee was a member of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the NAACP, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee),  and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Notably, she emceed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Her husband, Davis, was nominated for two Tony Awards; in 1958 as Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Musical) for Jamaica, and in 1970 as co-author of the book for Best Musical nominee, Purlie.  Davis delivered Malcolm X’s eulogy, which can be heard at the end of the film “Malcolm X,” and also gave a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the day after his assassination, at a memorial in New York’s Central Park.

Current Broadway stars have continued this dedication to activism. In July 2014, over 100 members of the Broadway community came together to send a message about police violence and the killing of Eric Garner.  Nik Walker (MotownPeter and the Starcatcher) participated in the Times Square performance and said, “As artists, it’s very easy to blind ourselves to the issues plaguing our world today. This meeting won’t be to take a side in the Ferguson case. We just want to promote a respectful and productive conversation, so that events like this are never forgotten…and always learned from.”

Daniel J. Watts (After MidnightMotownMemphis, In The Heights) also used his talent to spotlight the Ferguson community, Michael Brown, and other African Americans who have been affected by police brutality.  In November 2014, Watts gave spoken word performances in Times Square in order to open a dialogue using his platform to talk about a variety of social issues.  More recently, this past May, Watts along with Wilkie Ferguson (MotownPorgy n’ Bess and Post Modern Jukebox), and Nicholas Christopher (Motown and Whorl Inside A Loop), released their song, “Another One,” which riffs off of Queen’s 1980 hit, “Another One Bites The Dust.”  Watts recites poetry for the track, Christopher provides backing guitar, and Ferguson produced the tracks and added vocals.

These actors, along with countless others who have used their celebrity to provide awareness about social issues, are to be applauded for their work.  Without this spotlight, many issues would just be a brief flash on the evening news. Each time a person with name recognition attaches themselves to an issue, the more attention that cause receives.  Often, the Arts can be the bridge to open someone’s eyes.  As Watts eloquently said, “Art is the way for us to connect.  Art has the power to overcome obstacles.”

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