June 17: The First Black Playwright To “Take a Giant Step” to Broadway


Lyseum Theater Playbill for “Take a Giant Step” (connecticuthistory.org)

Award-winning playwright and filmmaker Louis Peterson spent his career creating dramatic stories that explored conflict and relationships especially as they turned around issues of race. He achieved a number of firsts, becoming the first Black playwright to have his work produced on Broadway and one of the first Black Emmy nominees – but before he became a familiar name in Hollywood and on the Great White Way, his story began in Hartford, Connecticut.

Peterson was born in Hartford on June 17, 1922, into a civically active family in a largely white neighborhood in the city’s South End. The Peterson family prioritized education and the arts, making sure Louis and his brother took piano lessons and spent plenty of time at the Wadsworth Atheneum.

After graduating from Bulkeley High School in 1940, Peterson went on to attend Morehouse College and earn a degree in English, but his interests in music and theater continued to call him and his considerable creative energies. After a year at the Yale School of Drama, he moved to New York, where he got his master’s in drama from NYU in 1947. He acted in plays and studied writing and drama, including with the famous acting teacher Sanford Meisner (whose instinct-based technique is a relative of Method acting).

Peterson was the first black screenwriter to be nominated for an Emmy (for his 1955 play “Joey” performed on the Goodyear Television Playhouse, and he also wrote the television script for “Take a Giant Step.” i, Royce Wallace, Pauline Meyers, Frances Foster, Johnny Nash, 1959 (Everett Collection)
Peterson’s movie credits include script-writing for The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell

He worked on writing all the while. Peterson’s first play, Take A Giant Step, opened on Broadway on September 24, 1953 after an incubation period in Hartford at the New Parsons Theatre, and a trial run in Philadelphia. The semi-autobiographical play, which tells the story of a Black teenager contending with entrenched racism in a largely white New England neighborhood, opened with Louis Gossett, Jr. in the lead role and received largely positive reviews – the Hartford Courant, which followed Peterson and the opening closely, noted with some pride that “The New York critics, who have been ripping into new plays this season, gave uniformly favorable notices Friday to the efforts of a young Hartford Negro playwright.” Take A Giant Step was listed as one of the best plays of the year, and drew praise for its humor as well as its frank approach to race, identity and teenage conflict.

Peterson went on to a prolific career in entertainment, writing for film, television and the stage over coming decades. He was the first black writer to be nominated for an Emmy award in 1957 for the Goodyear Television Playhouse’s “Joey”, and headed to California in the 1960s to explore more film and TV opportunities (which he considered helpful in buying time for him to work on stage drama). He was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975. Peterson continued to write and taught drama at the SUNY Stony Brook campus into the 1990s. He died in 1998, having paved a way for future generations of Black actors and playwrights.

Further Reading

Louis Peterson, Pioneering Black Playwright,” Los Angeles Times Archives 

Kay James McCrimon, “Remembering Louis Peterson,” Landmark and Historical Place

Andy Piascik, “Hartford’s Louis Peterson, Groundbreakking African-American Playwright,'” connecticuthistory.org