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On The Stage – along with a variety of creators all across the globe – places emphasis on the importance of diversity and inclusion. Although we’ve made great strides in representation over the last decade, more work is always needed.
Along with looking towards the future of theatre, it’s paramount to honor those who broke glass ceilings and pushed boundaries in the past. Today, we explore the life and legacy of Lena Horne, an American singer, dancer, actor, and civil rights activist who paved the way for various female and Black entertainers worldwide.
Lena Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917. Raised in an industrious middle-class family, Lena was surrounded by pioneers. Her father owned a hotel, and her mother acted in an all-black troupe. Her paternal grandparents were also some of the first members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Lena’s parents split when she was a child, and as a result, she moved frequently. She often toured the U.S. with her mother and her acting troupe.
She later went to Girls High School in Brooklyn but dropped out before she got her diploma. Later, she moved in with her father in Pittsburgh. There, her interest in all things performing arts peaked, and she learned from music legends, including Billy Strayhorn and Billy Eckstine.
Lena’s career spanned over seventy years in film, television, and theatre, with various twists and turns along the way. Her journey into the performing arts began when she was sixteen; she joined the Cotton Club – a nightclub in New York – in the chorus line. In the spring of 1934, she featured in the Cotton Club Parade.
Her first on-screen appearance was as a dancer in the musical short Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party. Down the line, she joined Noble Sissle’s orchestra, where she toured and made her first records.
Lena’s professional career began to blossom after being featured vocalist on NBC’s popular jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. She then journeyed to Hollywood after earning a slot in a Cotton Club-style revue on the Sunset Strip. Only a few weeks into the job, she was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Her first role with the media company was in the film Panama Hattie in 1942. She went on to star in various MGM musicals, some with entirely Black casts. Racism remained rampant in America and Hollywood during this time; and Lena was often not cast in lead roles simply because many movie theaters at the time would not show films with Black performers. As a result, most of Horne’s film appearances were stand-alone sequences that could be cut if need be.
After a show-stealing performance in 1945’s Ziegfeld Follies, Horne took a step back from Hollywood and focused on her nightclub career. She headlined at a variety of clubs and hotels not only in North America, but Europe as well. In 1957, a live album entitled Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria became the biggest-selling record by a female artist in the history of the RCA Victor label at that time. And in 1958, Horne became the first Black woman to be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, for her part in the Calypso musical Jamaica.
In the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Lena stayed busy. She often made appearances on TV variety shows, as well as well-received television specials. In 1981, Lena embarked on a four-week engagement at the newly named Nederlander Theatre in New York City. It was an instant success and ended up getting extended to run for an entire year. The performance garnered Horne a special Tony award and two Grammy Awards. In 1989, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Horne became heavily involved with the Civil Rights Movement alongside her considerable career. Lena often performed for World War II troops in USO showcases but refused to sing to segregated audiences. When she realized German POWS were sitting in front of Black U.S. soldiers at one performance, she walked off the stage and performed directly to the Black soldiers with the German POWS behind her.
Lena spoke at the March on Washington and often performed with the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women. She worked with Eleanor Roosevelt in attempts to pass anti-lynching laws, and in 1983, the NAACP awarded her the Spingarn Medal.
Lena’s legacy and works are still felt today in the performing arts world. In 2005, she released a collection of rare, unreleased songs – only five years before her passing. Critics noted that her voice was remarkably secure for a woman her age.
In 2007, Horne was portrayed by Leslie Uggams as ‘older Lena’ and Nikki Crawford as ‘younger Lena’ in the stage musical Stormy Weather. In 2011, Horne was portrayed by Ryan Jillian in a one-woman show titled Notes from A Horne.
The 83rd Academy Awards presented a tribute to Horne from actress Halle Berry, and in 2018, there is a forever stamp with Horne’s likeness issued. She became the 41st honoree in the Black Heritage Stamp series.
Additionally, in June 2022, the Nederlander Organization announced that the Brooks Atkinson Theatre would be renamed after her; as such, she is the first Black woman to have a Broadway theatre named after her.
As we look towards the future of theatre, it’s time to elevate POC voices and creators. If you’re not sure who to support, here are a few organizations to look into:
Art + Practice
Conceived and founded by artist Mark Bradford, activist Allan DiCastro, and philanthropist and art collector Eileen Harris Norton, this organization aims to support the needs of 18 to 24-year-old foster youth transitioning into adulthood.
The Rebuild Foundation
The Rebuild Foundation is an artist-led, community-based platform for art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation.
Black Artists and Designers Guild
The mission of the BADG is to advance a community of Black makers, build inclusive and equitable spaces, and invest in ancestral futures.
Harlem Arts Alliance
The Harlem Arts Alliance (HAA) began in 2001 and led by Voza Rivers – a local, national, and international impresario for advancing arts and culture. At the core, HAA has cultivated a dynamic membership base of artists and arts organizations. HAA plays an essential role in the lives of emerging and established artists by helping build the resources, networks, and capacity of its richly diverse membership.
Arts Administrators of Color
The Arts Administrators of Color Network is a support network that harnesses the power of artists, arts administrators, and organizations to connect and expand BIPOC leadership across the U.S. creative sector.