Though its roots go back much further, textbooks tells us Black History Month was first formally proposed in 1969 by educators and students at Kent State University. Regardless of their first priorities, L.A. theaters have responded to the annual celebration by putting fine productions onstage to remind, enlighten, encourage or out-and-out teach audiences. This year, seemingly more than in the past, a substantial number of theaters are offering productions centering on the African-American experience. See one or see them all. But we’re betting on these five, listed in order of closing date, as worth your theatergoing time and money this month.
Witness Uganda: A Documentary Musical
Wallis Annenberg Center, Feb 5–24
Expelled by his New York City church for being gay, Griffin flees the hemisphere to volunteer in a small African village. But there, AIDS, life-altering violence and corruption test his “good intentions.” Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews penned this show, described as part musical, part documentary.
9390 N Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills (310-746-4000). Tue–Fri at 8pm; Sat at 2:30, 8pm; Sun at 2:30, 7:30pm. $50.
Love is Another Country
Vs. Theatre, Feb 1–March 2
This year in particular, female leaders have stepped out and challenged the national patriarchy. They harken back to ancient Greeks, when Sophocles immortalized one fierce woman in Antigone. Now, Coin & Ghost company, reworking classics to ignite today’s imaginations, in association with Vs. Theatre Company, champion of original works, present the world premiere of this Lisa Marie Rollins play. Think Antigone meets Black Lives Matter. Kendall Johnson directs.
5453 Pico Blvd (323-739-4411). Schedule varies, so check theater website, but in general Fri, Sat at 8pm, Sun at 2:30pm. $25–$30 or pay-what-you-can.
Two Trains Running
Matrix Theatre, Feb 2–March 3
We challenge you to name a playwright who better captured—who more theatrically depicted—the black experience in 20th-century America than did August Wilson. His 10-play, decade-by-decade cycle includes this one, not produced often enough around here. Two Trains Running is set in the 1960s in Wilson’s beloved Pittsburgh Hill District beset by “urban redevelopment.” Michele Shay directs.
7657 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood (855-326-9945). Thu–Sat at 8pm, Sun at 2pm. $35.
Pasadena Playhouse, Feb 6–March 3
The African-American experience powerfully shares the stage with the white establishment and Eastern European immigration, as American history of the early 20th-century jostles them all and reminds each of us that we move forward on the wheels of a dream. Book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. David Lee directs.
39 S El Molino Ave, Pasadena (626-356-7529). Tue–Fri at 8pm; Sat at 2, 8pm; Sun at 2, 7pm. $29–$85.
Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole
Geffen Playhouse, Feb 5–Mar 17
The entertainment industry is rich with the history of the steep climbs and towering triumphs of black performers. Writers Patricia McGregor and Colman Domingo bring to life legendary singer Nat “King” Cole, just before the last Christmastime broadcast of his groundbreaking variety show—including visits (presumably in his imagination) from his daughter Natalie, Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr., among other legends. McGregor directs Dulé Hill as Cole and Daniel J. Watts as Davis in this West Coast premiere.
10886 Le Conte Ave, Westwood (310-208-5454). Tue–Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3, 8pm; Sun at 2, 7pm. $30–$120.