10 Iconic Black Women on Broadway throughout History

It is officially Women’s History Month, and it would be uncharacteristic of me to let it pass by. All March long, you’re going to hear stories about different women and how they influenced the modern age we are blessed to live in, but here’s the thing: there’s a lack of diversity even in women’s history month. Women of color, LGBT women, and transwomen will not be the hot topic of most conversations, so I’ve decided to shed a light on what I know best. Black women on Broadway.

If you like this post, you should check out my high school essay on Audre Lorde, another black queen.

10 Iconic Black Women on Broadway throughout History:

1. Patina Miller

In 2009, Sister Act opened debuted in the West End, starring Patina Miller. When it made its Broadway debut just two years later, Patina stayed on as Deloris Van Cartier, making her Broadway debut as well. She also reprised the role of the Leading Player in the Broadway revival of Pippin in 2013. She won a Tony for “Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical” for both Sister Act and Pippin. Patina was my own role model for all of high school.

2. Keke Palmer

Every black girl knows about Brandy Norwood’s Cinderella, but how many know that Keke Palmer did her time on stage in the big apple? That’s right. Little Miss True Jackson herself has the honor of being the first of all black women on Broadway to play Cinderella. She began her acting career in 2004 in Barbershop 2: Back in Business, but Cinderella is her only stage credit. Did I mention she’s only 23? How has it taken this long to get a black Cindy?

3. Toni Braxton

In 1998, Debbie Gibson handed over the reins and Toni Braxton took over the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, becoming the first of all black women on Broadway to do so. Many were upset with her sassy performance, but I personally think that’s just how Belle was always meant to be. I mean, have they seen the movie? Toni rocked the title role of hit Aida in 2003, a show based on an opera set in Egypt by the same name. Aida won four Tony awards in 2000, just before Toni started her run.

4. Robin Givens

Robin Givens began her acting career on the Cosby Show in 1985, and everything took off from there. In the next twenty years, she would appear in music videos, comedy and game shows, and Tyler Perry films all before making her Broadway debut. In 2006, she became the first of all black women on Broadway to play Roxie Hart in Chicago, a show about two murderesses and their rise to fame. Brandy Norwood is currently playing the role, which I will be seeing next month on a Mommy date!

5. Vinnette Justine Carroll

In 1972, Vinnette Justine Carroll became the first of all black women on Broadway to direct with the musical Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. Sheremains the only black woman to ever receive a Tony nomination for Direction, recieving one in 1972 for Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, and again in 1977 for Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. To this date, only two black directors have ever won in this category, both of which being men, and the most recent being 1996. It’s slightly unsurprising when you realize how few black directors have ever been nominated.

6. Lorraine Hansberry

Now, we all remember reading A Raisin in the Sun in high school, but did you know that it’s playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, was the first black woman to ever have a write a play that would be performed on Broadway? I didn’t. It premiered in the fall of 1959, an important time for the Civil Rights Movement. The Tony award winning play is still being performed starring Denzel Washington and Anika Noni Rose, the voice of Princess Tiana. The New York Times said that the play “changed American theatre forever”. I don’t disagree.

7. Juanita Hall

In 1950, Juanita Hall became the first of all black women to ever win a Tony. Receiving the “Best Supporting Actress” award with her performance in South Pacific as Bloody Mary, Juanita made the 4th Tony Awards historical. Prior to her stage career, Juanita had a choir ensemble which performed for concerts, films, records, and radio. Needless to say, “The Juanita Hall Choir” wasn’t the only successful part of her career.

8. Heather Headley

In 1997, The Lion King opened on Broadway, starring Heather Headley as Nala. It’s no secret that the story was extremely successful as a film, and it was no different on stage. The Trinidadian singer went on to originate the title role of Aida, for which she won a Tony for in 2000. You might have also seen her in 2009 singing alongside Josh Groban at one of Barrack Obama’s Inaugural Celebrations. I think it’s safe to say that Heather’s performances paved the way for black women on stage.

9. Jennifer Holliday

Even if you aren’t a Broadway fan, I’m sure you’ve heard of Dreamgirls. Yeah, well, did you know that Jennifer Holliday launched her stage career in 1981 by originating the role of Effie? Seems almost fitting seeing as how Jennifer Hudson was the one that slayed the film version as Effie. She landed the role the same day she auditioned for Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, though the former began first. She received a Drama Desk nomination for that role, and was forever remembered for her performance as Effie.

10. Audra McDonald

If you don’t know this one, you don’t know Broadway. Carousel isn’t the most known show, but the revival did generate a lot of buzz. Probably because Audra McDonald becoming the first black woman on Broadway to play Carrie in 1996. Audra McDonald is well known for her work in RagtimeA Raisin in the Sun, and Porgy and BessShe was a three time Tony award winner at only 28, but has won six to date.

3 thoughts on “10 Iconic Black Women on Broadway throughout History

  1. Thank you for making this list. A few comments:

    Why not start with Lorraine Hansbury? or Audra McDonald? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d go with the biggest and best at the top. Sister act is part of the cheesy movie to Broadway fad. – I liked the musical a lot, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t start with that.

    Robin Givens in Chicago? I had no idea. I Love her. She’s awesome, I’m now very sad I missed it, as I am sad about Toni Braxton in Beauty in the Beast. I’ve known about that for years. Wish I could see either of them.. or Brandy in the role. As a woman of Color, I would love the show even more with diversity – but I love it anyway. You mentioned Anika Noni Rose as voice of Tiana, but doesn’t she have Broadway credits as well? I would include the Billie Holiday story (forget the title) in Audra’s roll of credits- mention both. And I get the limited scope, but I am reminded of the famous fabulous women who performed notably in New York outside of a Broadway stage like Sarah Vaugh, Leontyne Price in the opera Aida, Lena Horne got her start on the stage in New York (Cotton Club) and I’m pretty sure Carmen Jones has a noteable Broadway story behind it. (That’s Oscar Hammerstein’s all black version of Bizet’s Carmen) – maybe include that for another article? I don’t’ remember anything specific about the stage version but the film with Dorothy Dandrige is certainly notable. If you want to focus on LGBT issues you could do an article on the Color Purple

    1. Thank you for your honest opinion! I didn’t do the article in any particular order, but I see your point. To be perfectly honest, I rushed the publish of this post because I’m working on something huge for NP! I won’t spoil the surprise though. I’ll definitely consider following up on this with a larger subject and a more specific list!

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