In 1958, just a year into his Broadway career, James Earl Jones performed in his first show at what was then the Cort Theatre, Sunrise at Campobello. Earlier this week, that same West 48th Street theater was renamed in his honor, becoming the James Earl Jones Theatre.
What transpired between 1958 and 2022? Jones led a six-decade career, which cemented his reputation as one of America’s most renowned actors. He made his film debut in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in 1964, though his most iconic role on the silver screen has to be voicing Darth Vader in the Star Wars franchise. On the stage, Jones has taken on roles in August Wilson’s Fences and Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope. His talents have earned him numerous accolades, among them two Emmys, a Grammy, an honorary Oscar and two Tonys—meaning he has achieved the coveted EGOT status.
As of Monday, Jones also has a Broadway theater named after him, joining a list of legends like George and Ira Gershwin and Neil Simon. He will also be in the company of August Wilson, after Jujamcyn Theaters renamed a West 52nd Street venue for him in 2005. Soon, another Broadway theater will be named for entertainer and civil rights activist Lena Horne.
The Cort Theatre’s renaming comes after a coalition of Broadway theater owners, producers, directors and other leaders put forth a New Deal for Broadway last year, which outlines reforms and commitments to ensure equity on Broadway. One stipulation requires three major theater chains—Jujamcyn, Nederlander and Shubert—to name at least one of their theaters for a Black artist. Jujamcyn already had the August Wilson Theatre, and Nederlander will soon dedicate the Lena Horne Theatre, which will be the first Broadway theater named after a Black woman. And now, Shubert has the James Earl Jones Theatre.
“I couldn’t think of anybody more deserving of this honor,” theater director Kenny Leon tells Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press (AP). “When I think about it, I think about young kids. I think about Black kids, white and Asian kids, all kinds of kids, standing up outside of that theater and looking up and saying, ‘That’s it: The James Earl Jones Theatre. That represents the good in all of us.’”
Leon was one of many Broadway leaders who attended a dedication ceremony on Monday, which featured performances from Norm Lewis and Brian Stokes Mitchell, as well as speeches from Mayor Eric Adams and Samuel L. Jackson. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, actors NaTasha Yvette Williams, Danielle Brooks, Corey Hawkins, Phylicia Rashad, and director Woody King Jr. were also in attendance, per the AP. Jones, who is 91, did not attend.
Instead, Jones and his family took a private tour of the theater, and the dedication ceremony included footage from his visit, reports Variety’s Michael Appler. “I spoke my first line ever on Broadway for me in this theater,” said Jones. “I was a kid.”
Originally opened in 1912 and named for John Cort, general manager of the Northwestern Theatrical Association, the theater has recently undergone a $47 million restoration, which expanded accessibility and added dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, bathrooms, lounges and bars. Now, the theater is back in business as the James Earl Jones.
The renaming “means everything,” Leon tells the AP. “You can’t think of an artist that has served America more.”