September 18, 2022—This past week marked another historic change on Broadway—the Cort Theatre was officially renamed in honor of multi-award-winning and iconic actor James Earl Jones. And there’s another change waiting in the wings—the Brooks Atkinson Theater will be renamed sometime this fall for the renowned civil rights activist, actress and musical performer Lena Horne, marking the first time a Broadway venue has been named for an African-American woman.
The name changes are the result of a pledge by the three major Broadway theater owners—Nederlander Organization, the Shubert Organization, and Jujamcyn—made in agreement with Black Theater United to name at least one of their theaters for a Black artist. The New Deal for Broadway pledge also included producers, union leaders, creators and casting directors who agreed on a series of reforms and commitments for the theater industry to ensure Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility.
The James Earl Jones Theater, which was officially renamed on September 12, 2022, joins the Jujamcyn’s August Wilson Theatre, which was renamed in 2005. The Lena Horne Theatre will be the third of Broadway’s 41 venues to be named in honor of an African-American.
Mr. Jones began his Broadway career in 1957. The following year, he played his first speaking role at the Cort Theatre in Sunrise at Campobello. The Shubert Organization owns the newly renamed theater, which recently underwent a $47-million renovation and expansion.
His career has spanned more than six decades of starring in countless stage and screen productions, including 21 Broadway shows. He is one of a small number of actors who are lifetime Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony (EGOT) winners. In addition, he has won Drama Desk Awards, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor.
Mr. Jones did not attend the renaming ceremony. However, he was quoted in the Amsterdam News: “To witness a theater named in my honor is at once momentous and humbling. It serves as a joyful reminder of the many long days and nights spent treading the boards with amazing peers who were at my side as we worked to show the humanity of all, often at great odds. It is my wish that it also serves as a beacon of hope to the countless contemporary talents now forging new paths in theater and beyond that all is possible.”
The Nederlander Organization owns the theater being renamed for Ms. Horne. Ms. Horne’s seminal, one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music was originally produced by the late James M. Nederlander, who was the second generation to head the family-owned, entertainment organization. A video recording of that Tony and Grammy Award-winning production can be seen on YouTube at this link.
Ms. Horne was a trailblazer throughout her life. Her performing credits included Harlem’s Cotton Club, as well as Carnegie Hall. Many of her accomplishments were historic firsts—she was the first Black woman to receive a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical, and she was the highest paid Black actor in 1942. She also was the first Black actor to sign a long term contract with an agency, in which she stipulated, according to the PBS American Masters Series, that she would never play “a servant, prostitute or any other demeaning role.”
Inspired and encouraged to become involved in the civil rights movement by the actor and activist Paul Robeson, Ms. Horne went on to refuse to perform for segregated audiences during her time with the USO. She actively worked in association with the NAACP, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the National Council of Negro Women.
Ms. Horne also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt in an effort to pass anti-lynching laws; marched with civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., and worked on behalf of Japanese Americans facing internment during World War II.
In an interview with the New York Times, Ms. Horne’s granddaughter, Jenny Lumet, who is a writer and producer, shared her reaction: “I’m really proud that people might find a spark of creativity in a space that has her name on it — that’s all you can ask for…(and) it means something that there will be a theater, in the mecca of theater, named after a Black female artist. I couldn’t be prouder.”
I also am very proud of the EDI&A efforts made by Black Theater United, the Nederlander Organization, and the Shubert Organization to recognize the extensive contributions of Black artists to the theater industry with the renaming of these two theaters. As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below.