By Ron Fassler . . .
Today September 12, marked the dedication ceremony of the James Earl Jones Theatre, a milestone not only for Mr. Jones, but for Broadway itself.
Built by John Cort, a producer, manager and theatre owner of a bygone era (he died in 1929), his self-named Cort on West 48th Street first opened in 1912 with J. Hartley Manners’ Peg o’ My Heart. Its location between 6th and 7th Avenues, was long considered to be on “the wrong side of Broadway” due to less pedestrian traffic than other choice streets. In spite of it being a lovely space, it was thought less than desirable for years, even though it’s had its share of long runs. Most auspiciously, Stephen Schwartz’s The Magic Show, which ran there for four and a half years between 1974 and 1978.
Long due for an overhaul and restoration, the Shubert Organization, which owns it, pumped $47 million dollars into a renovation and expansion that began after the closing of Derren Brown: Secret in January of 2020, just before Covid officially closed down Broadway. It’s something of a miracle that in under two-and-a-half years, work has been completed that now marks a new chapter in the life of the 110-year-old theatre. The name change of this historic house is accommodating a promise towards inclusivity of the BIPOC community by the Shubert Organization and to honor contributions by artists of color. To that end, the James Earl Jones Theatre is as welcome as cool weather come fall.
It’s hard to imagine a person of any color more worthy of a theatre in their name. Mr. Jones has appeared in twenty Broadway shows and at least that many off-Broadway, with scores of regional theatre credits and roles played on stages the world over, including London’s West End. His film and television work has been voluminous, and in addition to his two competitive Tonys, he received a Tony for Lifetime Achievement in 2017, a special Academy Award in 2011, three Emmys and a Grammy, all of which make him an EGOT. In a beautiful symmetry, the theatre that will now bear his name is where he made his Broadway debut. It was at the age of twenty-seven in 1958 in the Tony Award winning Sunrise at Campobello, which he played for a year. He had one line: “Mrs. Roosevelt, supper is served.” In his own words, you can hear him tell the story of how it all played out here.
In 1969, he conquered Broadway with his electrifying performance as Jack Jefferson in Howard Sackler’s Great White Hope, which earned him his first Tony Award and brought him an Academy Award nomination for the feature film version in 1970. And after that, even though Hollywood beckoned, he never stayed away from the stage too long, which was for the theatre (and audiences), a definite gain. Eighteen years after Great White Hope, his Troy Maxon in August Wilson’s Fences was just as demanding a role and he was more than up to the challenge, earning himself a second Tony. Each time Mr. Jones came back to the stage, those who thought it would be his last were wrong. In the ten years between 2005 and 2015, he starred in six Broadway shows, his last one, a revival of D.L Coburn’s The Gin Game, was opposite his longtime friend and fellow octogenarian, the late Cicely Tyson. Remarkable.
The ceremony outside the newly christened Jones Theatre was short and sweet. Opening remarks came from Robert E. Wankel, Chairman of the Shubert Organization, who paid tributed to Mr. Jones’s long and illustrious career. He was followed by Norm Lewis, who performed Alan Menken and David Zippel’s “Go the Distance,” written for Disney’s Hercules. What with Mr. Jones having voiced Mufasa, Lion King might have made for a closer connection, but whatever Norm Lewis wants to sing is always fine by me. Samuel L. Jackson, soon to be seen in the revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, was wonderful with a few witty remarks, mostly about what an inspiration Mr. Jones has been to him for his entire working life. And Brian Stokes Mitchell followed with a similar story, that whenever he finds himself in trouble working on a role, he says to himself, “What would James Earl Jones do?” His rendition of Lynn Arhens and Stephen Flaherty’s “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime was outstanding.
The ceremony wrapped with the unveiling of the new signage and lighting of the lights, which were met with cheers and applause. Then as mere mortals went their separate ways, VIPS got a tour of the theatre’s modernization of an exciting new annex, which will house a rehearsal studio, new dressing rooms and wardrobe facilities among other amenities.
Audiences will have their chance to experience the magnificence of this extraordinary renovation in November, when Audra McDonald will star at the James Earl Jones Theatre in Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders, directed by Kenny Leon.