*During a recent performance of the Black Stars of the Great White Way at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, Inside Broadway’s Gwendolyn Quinn caught up with Broadway veteran Chapman Roberts.
The executive producer and director produced the second installment of the highly-acclaimed production of the Black Stars of the Great White Way, which also marked the first anniversary celebration of its debut at Carnegie Hall.
Inspired by Tony Award nominated actor and partner, Norm Lewis, who opened the show with a stunning performance of “Stars” from Les Misérable, the two-day concert event featured the multiple award-winning talent of Chapman Roberts, Andre De Shields, Maurice Hines, Obba Babatundé, Melba Moore, Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, Harold Wheeler, Hattie Winston, Jackee Harry, Ebony Jo-Ann, Alyson Williams, Jermaine Coles, Larry Marshall, Kirk Taylor, Jacob Wheeler, Randall Williams, and Leon Roberts. The production featured over 20 songs, with music from Broadway’s “Les Misérables,” “The Wiz,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and the Oscar nominated film, “Selma.”
Part one of this four part series will feature an in-depth discussion with Chapman Roberts about Black Stars on the Great White Way and Chapman’s views on the state of Broadway.
Tell me about the concept for Black Stars of the Great White Way.
[Black Stars of the Great Way] evolved from a series of photographs inspired by “A Great Day in Harlem.” Carmen De Jesus called me and asked me to pose for a series of portraits of theater notables as any character they wanted to be [Releasing the Spirit: Faces of the Theatre project]. I posed as Pope Victor I, who was the African Pope who actually instituted Latin into the literature of the Catholic Church. He also established independent governance of the church so that the church had precedence over all religious matters so that the Emperor of Rome could not interfere with the church, which is where it stands today.
When I finished the session, I asked her if there was a photograph of all the African American Broadway performers, and she said “no.” And I said, “Why don’t we do one?” She said, “let’s go.” I sent out ten emails and I said, “Spread the word.” We had Times Square blocked off (the red steps) and, with the help of Veronica Claypool, 500 people showed up. The photo has been taken [titled Black Stars of the Great White Way]; we haven’t done anything with it commercially. We don’t really intend to, we didn’t intend to market it; we just made it available to everybody who was in it.
After the photo session, Norm Lewis walked up to me and said “I have this idea in my head. I would like to do this concert commemorating the achievements of African American men on Broadway.” And I said, “Let’s broaden it, let’s do it and make it the achievements of African American men on Broadway and at Carnegie Hall.” What we illuminated to the world was the fact that Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan and Duke Ellington are the only people in the history of the world that conquered the Broadway stage, the concert stage, the recording industry, the film industry, the international touring industry, and the chitlin’ circuit simultaneously. Cab Calloway, bandleaders, singers, dancers and actors, they did it all. They are peerless. Nobody, not Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim or Cole Porter—all the great composers and lyricists that they talk about—have done what they did. These men were composers and lyricists too. Their music was instituted into the fabric of the Civil Rights Movements. They actually made sure through the auspices of the United States government that the United States today has a foothold in the oil and natural gas industry in the Middle East. For centuries, the Africans—I did not use the word slaves; I have erased that from my vocabulary—the Africans who were brought here to build this country sang message songs to themselves. We have always encoded our communications before the CIA and the FBI. We sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Now the British get drunk and sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at their soccer games. They have no idea what that song is about; they have no idea what that song is saying. The message in the song is that a cart is going to come and it’s going to have on it bales of cotton and we are going to hide you under the bales of cotton to take you to freedom via the Underground Railroad. And the people who own the plantations, the Europeans, who were brought here on ships, had no idea, when they would say, “That sure sounds good, y’all can really sang, why don’t y’all niggers sang that again.” We would be happy to because somebody else would be escaping while they were listening. So, here we are and people say, “All y’all do is sing and dance,” but you don’t know what we were doing while we were singing and dancing, that’s what you don’t get. And every single song in the “Black Stars of the Great White Way” carried another message with it, and that’s what we did when we showed the images [on the monitor, on stage] that it was always a subtext, it was always a subliminal message in everything those composers wrote. “Sophisticated Ladies” is not about the women that [Duke Ellington] wanted to have sex with, it’s about the ladies that he studied under when he was a kid and he knew they were very beautiful and highly educated. They went to Europe in the summer and Paris in the spring, but they never found love. They were haute and probably lesbian. “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was written by two black men, who were producers, composers and lyricists for a black show, the first time it had ever happened in the history of the world. The show was on Broadway at the corner of Broadway and 64th Street in 1921. In the chorus was Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson and Blanche Calloway, and the song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was written about a black man, a character in the show, and that song that was written about a black man, by a black man was used as an election song for Harry S. Truman and helped to put him in the White House. Nobody else in the world knew of another election song, just that one, which is why when the United States government wanted to make forays into the Middle East to start tapping into the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and somebody said we need to send the Secretary of State to talk with them, because we need to get that oil, someone else said don’t send the Secretary of State, send Satchmo, that’s why they sent Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie on what they now call the State Department Ambassador Goodwill Tour. They sent them all over the world for years. They kept them all out in the world for years and they couldn’t say no. Once again, they used us like picking cotton to go dig for oil. So, the “Black Stars of the Great White Way” continues to bring that music, a century of it to the world, but this time we are making the message clear and entertaining as we do it.
Gwendolyn Quinn is a veteran media specialist with a career spanning 20 years. She is the founder of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business. Contact her at [email protected]