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Broadway stars gathered in a glittering ceremony Tuesday afternoon to rename the Brooks Atkinson Theatre after Lena Horne, in honor of her legacy as a performer and civil rights trailblazer. The dedication itself made history: the W47th St venue became the first Broadway theater to be named after a Black woman.
Horne, who died in 2010, was praised for her pioneering work as a Black dancer, singer and actor whose career spanned more than 70 years, and as a crucial voice in the Civil Rights movement at the ceremony, which included politicians and members of Horne’s own family, who continue her legacy in theater today.
“She had magic, she had craft and she had courage, but for me, her greatest strength was her imagination,” said Horne’s granddaughter, screenwriter Jenny Lumet, as she spoke of her grandmother’s storied performing career and dedication to racial equality. “Grandma, like so many of these beautiful performers here today, had to battle for the right to her imagination – and here today with all of you, that battle is won. Here we all are in 2022, which means she was doing something right.”
Lumet was joined by speakers from the NAACP, Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams, as well as speeches and performances from the Broadway luminaries like Vanessa Williams, LaChanze and Audra McDonald of Black Theatre United, the racial equality advocacy organization responsible for campaigning for the dedication.
“Naming this theater will ensure that future generations will know who she was, what she did and what she stood for,” said actor Tamara Tunie, who appeared alongside the star in 1981’s Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. “Having the opportunity at 22 years old to experience Lena as the artist, a performer, a proud Black woman – who not only survived the slings and arrows of life, but thrived – it had a profound impact on me,” she added. “Lena Horne broke down barriers and paved the way for all of us with her talent, her grit, her intellect, her determination, and always with style.”
Lena Horne was born in Bedford Stuyvesant, New York City in 1917. The daughter of a hotel and restaurant owner and an actress, Horne traveled with her mother’s touring theater troupe before returning to Brooklyn where she attended Girls High School.
After a stint studying music and living with her father in Pittsburgh, she returned to New York and joined the chorus line of the legendary Cotton Club in 1933. Following a breakout tenure at the historic Harlem club, Horne toured the country with Noble Sissle’s orchestra and produced her first records. Rising through the ranks of the music industry, she eventually replaced Dinah Shore on the NBC jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, gaining further acclaim that would lead her to Hollywood.
Starring in MGM films like Cabin in the Sky and Panama Hattie – where she would perform the classic “Stormy Weather”, Horne went on to be the first Black performer elected to serve on the Screen Actors Guild board of directors before returning to live performance, citing a frustration with being racially pigeonholed as an actor. She reembarked on an illustrious post-war streak headlining clubs and hotels across Europe, Canada and the US, specifically in her native New York – where she recorded Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, an RCA Victor album that would go on to be the biggest selling female artist record in the label’s history.
It was in this post-war surge that Horne made Broadway history, when, in 1958, she became the first Black woman nominated for a Best Actress Tony Award for her performance in the musical Jamaica. She would go on to further cement her place in the pantheon of theatrical performers in her 1981 one-woman smash, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, a job she booked after theatrical producer James Nederlander witnessed Horne perform at a Met Opera gala and invited her for a four-week engagement at his own Nederlander Theatre. The musical was so well-received that Nederlander and his producing partners Michael Frazier and Fred Walker extended the run, earning Horne another Tony Award and two Grammys for the show’s cast recording.
“She was such an important part of the fabric of my life and my father’s life for many years,” said James L Nederlander at Tuesday’s ceremony. “Lena Horne’s legacy will never die,” he added. “It’s because of people like her that Broadway theaters and the entertainment industry make progress in the march toward racial equality — and it is our commitment at the Nederlander to continue to be a part of this movement.”
In addition to her successful performing career, Horne was a dedicated civil rights activist who attended 1963’s March on Washington, frequently speaking and performing on behalf of the NAACP. Current NAACP Vice Chair Karen Boykin-Towns said: “While Ms Horne had a distinguished career in the performing industry, she had an utter dedication and commitment to the principles of equality and justice for all, despite many obstacles.”
“Not only was she an unparalleled singer, actress, and dancer, her work as a civil rights activist forged countless opportunities for the generations that followed,” added City Council Member Erik Bottcher in a statement to W42ST. “A Lena Horne Theatre on Broadway is a fitting monument to her amazing legacy.”
As the crowd readied itself for the reveal of the brand-new Broadway marquee, Tony Award winner and Black Theatre United co-founder Audra McDonald reflected on the enormity of the moment. “We are celebrating an icon,” she said. “To bear witness to a Broadway theater named in her honor, to take part in this momentous tribute to her legacy is a testament of the dedication of the ancestors and the efforts of countless heroes, Lena included, who sought to make change — positive change — in the world. Those of us who came after Lena bow to her. We know we stand on her shoulders, and it’s up to us and the generations to come to continue to shine that same light ever forward.”