The nation's first black president was in town for a date night with his wife Saturday night that included a play about the sons and daughters of newly freed slaves.

Security was tight as Times Square prepared to host Barack and Michelle Obama at the 8 p.m. performance of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."

The sense of historical meaning was palpable among actors and theatergoers outside the Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street, where the August Wilson revival is playing.

Arliss Howard, who portrays Rutherford Selig, said the play carries a poignancy for the Obamas. Although some say racism in America is dwindling, he said, the play is a reminder of the black experience in America.

"It's great. It's an honor. We're looking forward to it," Howard said outside the theater after the matinee, where actors waited as the Secret Service combed the building.

Larry Perkins, 58, of Atlanta, saw the matinee with his wife and found out later that the next show would host the Obamas.

"It was an appropriate play for Obama to see because the play is about a man finding his soul and his purpose in life," Perkins said. "They found their place in the world. It was a great struggle. But they found their place in the White House."

After the president spent the early part of the day watching his daughter Malia's soccer game, the first couple flew from Washington, D.C., to New York.

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In a statement, the president said, "I am taking my wife to New York City because I promised her during the campaign that I would take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished," according to The Associated Press.

Michelle Obama wore a black cocktail dress and heels. Her husband wore a dark suit and white shirt with no tie.

Back outside the Belasco, Chad Coleman, who plays Harold Loomis, called the opportunity to perform for a president "a dream come true."

"It's huge having the first African-American president coming to see this work about the history of slavery and history of his people," Coleman said.

The couple spent about two hours at the Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village, the AP said. As their motorcade drove up Sixth Avenue to the theater, crowds gathered on the sidewalks of the blockaded streets to wave. Some cheered. Cabdrivers opened their doors and stood on the frames of their taxis for a better view.

@Newsday

Josh Seidman contributed

to this story.