I got a great bunch of articles in my inbox today as part of Thomas Cott’s You’ve Cott Mail newsletter. If you’re interested in the business side of show business, and you like news story aggregation, you should absolutely sign up. I’m going to make a post for each of these articles, and I’ll spread them out throughout the week.
First up: why aren’t black audiences supporting black theater artists? That’s the question posed by this Minneapolis Star Tribune article. The first of two really important ideas that jump out at me (emphasis mine):
“I get uncomfortable counting black faces, because we are not a monolith,” said Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy, who staged “Raisin” at the Guthrie, the first time since its 1959 Broadway debut that the show has been staged at the theater. “I wonder if affluent blacks [who are most likely to go to nonprofit theater] don’t have more in common with affluent whites than they do with the majority of blacks. We are a tricky people. You have to do work that honors that.”
We’re not quite post-racial, as many folks like to say in the After Obama era, but Mr. Bellamy has a great and important point. Class is the real dividing line here. We see this deeply in art, where the question of high vs. low culture is, I believe, at the heart of what most theater companies are struggling to solve, even if they don’t frame the argument in those terms. The best illustration of this schism, I think, is this:
In at least one type of theater, blacks here and elsewhere are voting with their feet. The touring morality musicals and plays, popularized by actor/impresario Tyler Perry, consistently sell out runs at the State or Orpheum theaters, and do so without relying on traditional advertising.
I’ve talked about this before, but probably never blogged about it: when I worked in Cleveland, I’d go to public grade schools and high schools just about once a week. I’d ask “who here has ever gone to the theater before?” In predominantly African-American classrooms, the situation was always the same: I’d get about 25% of the hands going up immediately. I’d ask what plays those children had seen. Some would mention Shakespeare, some mentioned musicals — and then someone would mention Madea (Tyler Perry’s famous alter ego). Instantly — INSTANTLY — virtually every hand in the room would go up. Students would start shouting, sharing their memories of seeing the Madea plays — they were universally loved. There was a disconnect though, even for the kids — somehow, this didn’t register as theater. It didn’t register as the same kind of art form as Shakespeare — the latter was something stuffy and formal, while the former was fun and communal. Low art vs. high art had a hold, even on fifth-graders.
Definitely check out the article. Lots of great stuff there, and a good groundwork for everything I’ll be talking about this week.