Stepping into the Spotlight: Black Representation in Theatre


Over the years, theatre has started becoming more and more progressive. With shows like Shuffle Along, Hamilton, and Six, Black performers are no longer token best friends who are only there to belt a high note, but are taking center stage, earning their rightful due. With actors such as James Monroe Iglehart, Roman Banks, and Brittney Johnson, younger audiences are seeing Black performers where previous generations may have only seen white ones. While there is still more work to be done when it comes to representation in the theatre industry, each of these milestones is a momentous victory. 

  • Shuffle Along

Shuffle Along originally opened on Broadway in 1921, after the success of a tour throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It was the first musical on Broadway with an all Black cast, playwright, composer, and lyricist. The show went on to play for a record 504 performances (around 1 year and 11 weeks) before closing. Shuffle Along is also known for accelerating the Harlem Renaissance, and showcased Black art in a predominantly white cultured industry. A revival of the show in 2016 starred Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, and Brandon Victor Dixon. Before its opening, there had been a decade-long absence of Black performers and artists after many of the prominent ones had retired and/or passed away. Shuffle Along also brought Black audiences to the orchestra rather than the balcony where they were often pressured to sit by white theatregoers. 

  • Audra McDonald

Anyone who’s anyone in theatre knows Audra McDonald. She is a legend. She was the first performer to win six Tony Awards, and has received an award in all four acting categories: Best Lead Actress in a Musical, Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Best Lead Actress in a Play, and Best Featured Actress in a Play. She also has two Grammy Awards and an Emmy. She won her first Tony Award in 1994 after graduating Julliard in 1993. She was also Madame Garderobe in the 2017 live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. 

  • Whoopi Goldberg

Another name everyone recognizes is Whoopi Goldberg. She was the first (and still is the only) Black woman to have achieved EGOT status after winning a Tony in 2002 for production in Thoroughly Modern Millie. She also produced Sister Act: The Musical. Goldberg also performed in many Broadway shows, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Xanadu. She then made her debut on the West End in a limited run as Mother Superior in Sister Act: The Musical. 

  • James Monroe Iglehart & Jelani Alladin

It’s momentous when an actor or actress of color takes the stage as a character that was previously only played by white actors. But Alladin and Iglehart originated — were the first to perform — their roles on a Broadway stage as characters that were adapted from the screen and were portrayed by a white actor. James Monroe Iglehart originated the role of the Genie in the 2014 theatrical adaptation of Aladdin, and won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for the role. The role of the Genie has since been performed by numerous Black actors following him. Jelani Alladin originated the role of Kristoff in the 2017 theatrical adaptation of Frozen.Since his portrayal, other Black actors have also been cast and portrayed the role, including Mason Reeves in the American tour.  He also went on to portray the titular character in a Central Park production of Hercules, which has since been announced to be moving to Broadway in the near future. 

  • Christiani Pitts & Noma Dumezweni

Similar to Iglehart and Alladin, Christiani Pitts and Noma Dumezweni originated previously canonically white characters on Broadway. Ann Darrow, the female protagonist in the several films about King Kong, the misunderstood ape, has been portrayed by many actresses since 1993, but Christiani Pitts was the first actress of color to portray Darrow, and originated the role on Broadway in 2019 in a musical adaptation. The show closed shortly after its opening, so not many actresses of color had the opportunity to follow in Pitts’ footsteps. Following Emma Watson’s portrayal of Hermione Granger, Noma Dumezweni originated middle-aged Granger in the West End production of Harry Potter & the Cursed Child. Dumezweni then went on to originate Granger in the Broadway production of the show as well.

  • Hamilton

Lin Manuel Miranda’s 2015 musical about one of the lesser-known founding fathers was a complete phenomenon, and completely swept the Tony Awards. Though the historical figures were white in reality, the cast was made up of Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Daveed Diggs as Lafayette & Thomas Jefferson, and Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, among others. Other notable performers of color in Hamilton include Ariana deBose as “the Bullet”, and Michael Luwoye as the first Black actor to play the titular character himself. Hamilton’s success led to the historical moment in 2016 when Black actors and actresses received Tony awards in all four major acting categories in musicals, with Leslie Odom Jr, Diggs, Goldsberry, and Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple receiving the awards for their performances. 


  • Saycon Sengbloh & Brittney Johnson

Wicked is one of the most well-known musicals of all-time, and is still open at the Gershwin Theatre after its Broadway opening in 2003. Saycon Sengbloh joined the cast of Wicked in 2004 as a standby for Elphaba, and made her debut in 2005, making her the first Black actress to play the role on Broadway. Brittney Johnson joined the Wicked company in 2018 as an understudy for Glinda, and made her debut in January of 2019. Up until then, there had been Black performers for every other principle role except Glinda. Alongside Wicked, Johnson was also the first Black actress to play Fantine and Eponine in Les Miserables. 

  • Roman Banks & Jordan Fisher

Roman Banks and Jordan Fisher were the first two actors to portray the titular character in the 2017 hit, Dear Evan Hansen. Banks first joined the company in 2018 after attending an open call audition and received a callback for Jared. He was also called back for the Evan role, and booked it then and there. He first was a swing for Evan, Jared, and Connor, the three main male roles in the show, and made his Evan debut in December of 2018. He can also be seen as a recurring character in season two of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which begins airing in May. Jordan Fisher joined the cast in January 2020 and was the principal Evan up until the Broadway shutdown in March, the second actor of color to do so. He originally made his Broadway debut as John Laurens & Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, and won season 25 of Dancing With the Stars with his partner Lindsay Arnold. 

  • Nicolette Robinson & Jordin Sparks

Similar to Banks and Fisher, Nicolette Robinson and Jordin Sparks were the first two actresses to play characters previously only played by white actresses, as the role of Jenna in Waitress. Robinson joined the Waitress company in 2018, and made her debut later that year, being the first actress of color to perform the role. Over a decade after winning American Idol, Jordin Sparks joined in 2019 as the principal Jenna for a limited run of 2 months, being the second actress of color to take on the role. 

  • Six

Six, the musical about a pop girl band formed by the six ex-wives of Henry VIII,  originally opened on the West End in 2019, and after acclaimed success, was set to be adapted for a Broadway stage. The show was set to begin previews on March 13, the night of the shutdown, and unfortunately did not get to open. However, many of the principal cast members and replacements were actresses of color, even though the historical figures who the story is based on were white. The original West End cast included Jarneia Richard-Noel as Catherine of Aragon, Alexia McIntosh as Anne of Cleves, and Maiya Quansah-Breed as Catherine Parr. Following suit, the Broadway Cast includes Adrianna Hicks as Catherine of Aragon, Brittney Mack as Anne of Cleves, and Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr. 


Theatre is a constantly changing art form, from the shows themselves to the music (and  even the characters). Instead of a character only being played by one actor, — as seen in TV or movies — numerous actors and actresses play the same roles. This also means that anyone can be anyone else. And yet, even with the openness of character appearances, the world of theatre is still a predominantly white industry. This  is what makes it so noteworthy when a Black actor or actress takes on roles that were either previously portrayed by white actors, or represent  characters derived from white actors in movies or TV. Although Black History Month has come to an end, it still remains important to constantly recognize and appreciate the representation seen in theatre, or any art form.