James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou Were Part of ‘Impressive’ Cast in 1959 Play ‘The Blacks’

James Earl Jones Cicely Tyson Maya
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To celebrate Variety’s 115th anniversary, we went to the archives to see how some of Hollywood’s biggest stars first landed in the pages of our magazine. Read more from the archives here.

In 1961, the St. Mark’s Playhouse Off Broadway offered the U.S. premiere of a work by French playwright Jean Genet starring a bunch of unknowns. The group included James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, Louis Gossett, Roscoe Lee Browne, Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques and Charles Gordone.

Genet was an outspoken activist who always gave a voice to the underdogs. His 1959 play “The Blacks” (originally “Les negres”) was tough and confrontational, using a play-within-a-play structure to explore racism and Black identity, hoping to make Caucasian audiences uncomfortable.

In the play, a group of actors re-enact the kangaroo-court trial of a Black man accused of murdering a white woman; the all-Black cast frequently were in whiteface or wearing masks.

The production, directed by Gene Frankel, ran for an amazing 1,408 performances.

Variety theater critic Hobe Morrison was not impressed by the “portentous symbolism” of the play, but conceded “the show is well done — certainly the playing is impressive to watch.”

“The Blacks” wasn’t the first professional job for most of the actors, but it was a springboard for all of them, who worked regularly after that — sometimes together. For example, the 1967 movie “The Comedians,” a serious look at Haiti starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, also starred Browne, Jones, Tyson and St. Jacques. The landmark 1977 miniseries “Roots” featured Gossett, Angelou, St. Jacques and Tyson.

Cambridge died in 1976, at age 43, after starring in such films as “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and “Watermelon Man,” both in 1970. St. Jacques (1930-1990) appeared in dozens of film and TV works, including his memorable turn as Street Preacher in John Carpenter’s 1988 cult hit “They Live.”

Angelou (1928-2014) continued to act but earned greater fame as a poet and novelist, particularly for her book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Browne (1922-2007) worked in films with Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, John Wayne, and on TV shows ranging from “All in the Family” to “Will & Grace.”

Charles Gordone (1925-1995) continued to act and write; he won the 1970 Pulitzer for drama for “No Place to Be Somebody,” becoming the first Black playwright to win that honor. It was also the first Off-Broadway production to be represented at the Pulitzers.

Sixty years after “The Blacks,” several of those unknowns are still working. Jones starred onstage in productions of “Driving Miss Daisy” opposite Vanessa Redgrave and Angela Lansbury; Gossett and Tyson earned 2020 Emmy nominations. And all three of them have won Oscars.

In 1961, the top ticket for “The Blacks” cost $4.50, which translates to $40 today. The experience of watching this cast: priceless.