Actors David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood and Celia Rose Gooding have a shared passion for telling powerful stories on stage, but they say it's the personal experiences they had leading up to their big breaks that helped shape how they celebrate and honor each other's successes.
The three Broadway stars sat down with "Nightline" co-anchor Byron Pitts for Black History Month to reflect on their experiences and the truths they have discovered about themselves through their success on stage.
Grier and Underwood currently star in the first-ever Broadway production of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning show "A Soldier’s Play," a murder mystery centered around a black sergeant on a Louisiana Army base who investigated by a fearless military captain.
"What ensues after that is just the perspectives of all these different human beings and characters and the construct," Underwood said of the period piece set in the 1940s.
"To make it a period piece gives the audience space to separate. It's not now so you can let go of a lot of stuff," Grier explained. "One of the unique aspects of this show was to see all of these different black men, all different sizes, shapes, hues, arguing among ourselves. I call it an inner racial conflict. It is about our discussion within our race."
Gooding, who made her Broadway debut as Frankie Healy in "Jagged Little Pill," said that her success at 19 years old has been a sign that she is living out her destiny.
"It's been a dream since I was 8, and being able to do it a little over 10 years later, I feel like I have a wealth of luck. It's an honor and it's a privelege, of course. But to tell this story specifically, without sounding vain, it feels like my destiny," she said. "I feel like I was destined to do this because it's the story of a black girl growing up in a white community -- I dealt with a lot of the same microaggressions that Frankie deals with."
She continued, "Being able to tell this story now, I get to tell this story for my high school self and for a lot of high school-aged black girls being told that they're too this or too that."
Gooding said that her character does not bend to those expectations.
"She's outspoken and she is fearless and she's ready to have conversations that make people feel uncomfortable, and that is so important for us to be doing at this time. It's about time dark skin black girls are allowed to tell their own story."
Gooding also said that while she learns every day, she has been able to bring a unique perspective to the stage as a black, queer woman.
"I would be doing myself a disservice by editing myself," she said. "I was brought into that space because I'm outspoken and because I have this experience. I have to be the one to represnt for myself and my mother and that community."
Underwood said this is "a golden age in Hollywood and Broadway" because "people want to see themselves. People want to be represented. It's an exciting time."
Grier spoke to the number of performances that are intentionally black and tell universal truths, which bring a rich culture to the stages on Broadway.
"We have to tell a good story and entertain and that's what will sustain this movement and make it more permanent," Grier said. "This is a different generation of artists. We feed on the past to tell the present what we want to do now and what's going to happen in the future, so hopefully we've come from where we were."
Gooding added that "the power of the black story is only as powerful as those who receive it."
"It's all about those who keep talking about it," she said. "Where we are now, we have an opportunity to be black on stage and tell our story in a way that's not for entertainment, but a way of education, and I think that's super important."
Gooding has an extra special connection to the generation of black actresses that preceded her. Her mom is three-time Tony Award winner LaChanze, who she said has been her greatest inspiration to become an actress.
"My biggest and greatest 'why' is my mother," she said. "I am all about chasing joy. Thank goodness I found my joy in this."
Gooding hearkened back to watching her mom's face during her 2006 Tony acceptance speech and said, "I put both of my hands on the TV and said 'I want to do that.' It was the joy that was just radiating off of her. I wanted to chase joy. I wanted to tell stories and I wanted to be comfortable, and I found it in theater."
Gooding said her mom warned her of the potential challenges that come with "being a black woman in theater," but said that her mother has "been holding my hand."
"She's been in my corner, she's been everywhere with me and the support that she's given me has implored me to give [all] of myself to this and I've found so much joy. I've been able to inform and empower myself," Gooding said.
Grier said that while most of his family and friends while growing up in Detroit aspired to become doctors or lawyers, he aspired for something that he could "spend a lifetime doing."
"There's a million in one shot. Even if you can play, that is a really lofty goal," Grier said. "But I was determined and it all worked out."
Underwood said that after "Roots" came out in the 1970s, he was moved by the social impact of the miniseries to "communicate stories and make people feel and have an impact."
"It was deeper than just entertaining, and I felt then, I want to do that. It's really informed a lot of choices in my career," Underwood said.
The actors all said there is a genuine sense of family when it comes to the support system within the black Broadway community. As such, Grier and Underwood offered their best advice for Gooding.
"We walk shoulder to shoulder, not above you, not below you, as artists. That's how I want to be for the next generation. If they seek knowledge I'll give it," Grier said.
Underwood added, "I would just encourage you, continue doing what you're doing. Speak your mind, be bold and keep going deeper and deeper as an artist. You're doing it right."