Productions by Black playwrights, featuring a Black cast and a Black director, tend not to fare well on the Great White Way. The bright lights of Broadway were quickly dimmed, for instance, on August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and King Hedley II and Vernel Bagneris’s One Mo’ Time. Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule. Top Dog/Under Dog, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Jeffrey Wright and rapper-turned-actor Mos Def, played to sold out houses.
Drowning Crow, written by award-winning stage actress and playwright Regina Taylor, hopes to see similar success on Broadway. Taylor, who won an AUDELCO Award (the highest honor in Black theater) in 2003 for Crowns, which she wrote and directed, is making her Broadway debut with Drowning Crow. Many will remember Taylor in the character of Lilly Harper in the television series I’ll Fly Away, for which she received an NAACP Image Award and Golden Globe for best leading dramatic actress.
Drowning Crow is based on Russian playwright Anton Chekov’s classic The Seagull, which was set in Russia in the 1800s. Taylor has brought the script into modern times, setting it on the Gullah Islands off the coast of South Carolina and changing the characters to African-Americans who are dealing with relationships within their family and betrayal by lovers. The production is directed by the legendary Marion McClinton, who has directed each of August Wilson’s Broadway productions. McClinton’s directorial gifts have been seen in such productions as A Raisin in the Sun.
“Regina, like August, has strong opinions on why she wrote it and I love that. She also has the ability to step back and let people [the actors] find their way,” he says. Directing the play is a challenge, he notes. “There’s an African-American woman on Broadway, 13 on stage, a beautiful contemporary play. If I can nail this, this can open up some things for Blacks on Broadway,” McClinton says.
Actress Alfre Woodard stars in the play as Josephine Nicholas Ark Trip, family matriarch and a classic, self-absorbed character. Woodard, a multi-Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress and an Oscar nominee, says she jumped at the chance to play her character because “I get to be bad. Nobody is pulling for me,” she says. “The play itself is loaded and full of the human condition. There’s pathos, struggle and longing,” she adds.
Woodard’s character has a troubled relationship with her son, Constantine Trip, (played by Anthony Mackie). Josephine is dating Robert Alexander Trigor, a TV writer (played by Peter Francis James) with roaming eyes. Constantine is in love with Hannah Jordan (played by Aunjanue Ellis), an aspiring actress who is attracted to Trigor. The remaining cast members are a who’s who of Black stage actors, including Paul Butler and Stephen McKinley Henderson (both of whom graced the Broadway stage in August Wilson productions), Ebony Jo-Ann, Roger Robinson, Stephanie Berry, Peter Macon, Curtis McClarin, Tracie Thoms and Baron Vaughn.