*In part three of our four part series with Chapman Roberts, the composer, producer and co-creator of Black Stars of the Great White Way weighs in on race and Broadway.
From the time you made your debut in the Broadway musical “Hair,” how much of a challenge has race continued to be for African Americans on the Great White Way?
The idea that I am talking to you is remarkable to me. I made my Broadway debut in “Hair” in 1968. In that show was Lamont Washington, who was Sammy Davis’ standby for everything he ever did, he could bootleg Sammy. It was Melba Moore, it was Emmaretta Marks, and it was Lorrie Davis. It was Ronnie Dyson, who had the hit records, “If You Let Me Make Love to You,” and “Why Can’t I Touch You.” And then Joe Morton, who had just won an Emmy, came into the show. All of us were in that show at the same time. And then Ben Vereen came in as a replacement. There were 13 black people on that stage in 1968. The Amsterdam News, EBONY, JET— not one black press person ever spoke to us—not one. I’m not even talking about the New York Times, New York Post, and the New York Daily News—of course those outlets were going to ignore us. But there were 13 black people in the biggest hit in the history of the world to this day and we were never interviewed by the black press. I’ve been on Broadway since 1968 and I have only spoken with four black press people in my life, and all of them were in the last two years and I am now retired.
Our own community did nothing to support us. We stand on the stage and all we see is a sea of white faces. That’s why we don’t have careers, that’s why we die broke; because our own people do not come and see us. In the Jewish community, when their kids came home from college, their families gave them tickets to see “Fiddler on the Roof.” [The kids] would say “Mom, I already saw it,” and [the parents] would say, “You’re going again.”
The educational process through the music is what the Black Stars [of the Great White Way] has presented, “This Is Your History,” is the song that played when everybody was coming into the theatre. This is your history, this is your family, and this is for everybody, you and me, so live your dream. That’s what the concert was called at Carnegie Hall, “Live Your Dream.” This is your history. They tried to pretend that we made no contribution to this society and that our entertainers have nothing to do with the progress that this country has made. The black entertainers—the black singing musicians— have sustained this country when they had nothing else. During World War II, Marian Anderson sang 36 concerts at Carnegie Hall alone—36 concerts. Paul Robeson toured all over the world, concertizing and singing in 26 languages about the rights of every human being—not just Africans in this country— the rights of every human being. Everybody who has come to this country stands on the shoulders of the African people who built this country, which allows them to enjoy the rights that we fought for— and we did it with music. We weren’t allowed in politics. We weren’t allowed in government. We weren’t allowed in industries. We did it through song, dance and poetry.
Langton Hughes predicted that although we are very nice people, [our community is a sleeping giant,] and one day when that sleeping giant wakes up, it’s going to be too bad. Now, I am going to say one last thing.
They are still trying to pretend that the Confederate flag does not represent hatred of black people. Well, they need to tell the KKK that, because weeks ago, they went to the church that they bombed and killed those four little black girls [in 1963] and put that Confederate flag on the lawn of that church. You tell them that it doesn’t represent racism because their actions are telling us it does. And that’s what we are up against. When we sang “Glory,” [at the Black Stars of the Great White Way concert in Winston-Salem] we didn’t sing it in the future tense, we sang it in the present tense. The victory has been won, because we have established the fact that yes, it is still a racist country. And that to me is a victory because everybody has been pretending that everything is fine because we have elected a black President.
To read part one of A Conversation with Broadway Veteran Chapman Roberts, please read: http://wp.me/p33GTY-2ex1.
To read part two of A Conversation with Broadway Veteran Chapman Roberts, please read: http://wp.me/p33GTY-2eW2
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media specialist with a career spanning over 20 years. She is the founder of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the publisher of the AAPRC’s e-publication, Global Communicator. Her weekly columns, “Inside Broadway with Gwendolyn Quinn” and the forthcoming column, “My Person of the Week” is published on EURWEB.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business. Contact her at [email protected]