Patrick Healy talks about black Broadway audiences in today’s Times.
I’m all kinds of conflicted.
1. What goes unspoken in articles like this is this: the assumption that the art form itself is white. More accurately, it’s an assumption (with a grounding in current reality) that there is one specific cultural experience that has a greater claim to Broadway than others. If Broadway saw itself as even partially “black”, it wouldn’t be feeling the need to specifically reach out to black audiences. It would be part of what the field did as a reflection of itself.
This is on my mind because, as usual, I’ve recently found myself involved in discussions of race and diversity in the not-for-profit theater. The conversation, as usual, really comes down to this: theater institutions and the people who run them don’t seem to know a lot of non-white people, and therefore don’t know how to reach non-white people to invite them into their spaces (as employees, board members, or audiences). That’s why diversity in the workplace is a good idea — it helps you understand how to create diversity in the marketplace (or, in our case, in the audience).
And now I’m digressing.
2. I never know if I agree with the existence of statements like this (emphasis mine): Whether black theatergoers become a larger, reliable part of the Broadway audience remains to be seen, as do the range and quality of the shows that are offered to appeal to them. So again, most plays are geared to appeal to white audiences, and black audiences are only going to be interested in shows created to appeal to them? To an extent, well, yeah — if you don’t give folks a chance to see themselves onstage, they’re often not going to come. But I think we really shoot ourselves in the foot when we assume that audiences with the disposable income to come see a Broadway show even once a year might not be interested in shows outside of their comfort zone.
3. I’m reminded, once again, that Broadway (and theater in general) is shockingly, wildly, insanely behind the cultural times when it comes to race, ethnicity, and multicultural audiences. It’s 2010. Are we really just now realizing that there’s value in cultivating black audiences? Shouldn’t we be thinking about Latinos and Asians by now? Shouldn’t we be trying to at least pay lip service to this whole “post-racial America” thing that was all the rage back in the election of 2008? Instead, we’re somewhere on the verge of trying to integrate our audiences…kind of.
Let me repeat that: it’s 2010. Broadway theater is just now trying to INTEGRATE. And only kind of. And only on certain shows.
4. Then there’s this: This fall’s Broadway lineup includes…possibly the new two-character play “The Mountaintop,” about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., depending on whether the producers can land the stars Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry. Yes, we’re talking about race here, but this play by Katori Hall just shocked the theater world in London, beating out other huge names to win its top prize — and whether it can move to Broadway depends on getting two Hollywood stars (both of whom I like in films, neither of whom I’m dying to see on Broadway)? It’s a play about Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s road-tested, it’s two characters (don’t they always tell us to write small, inexpensive plays?), and it’s by a thrilling new voice in the American theater…who happens to be an African-American female.
And I’m expected to believe that there’s no other way to sell it than to get two of the maybe five biggest black movie stars in the country?
(And SamJack as MLK? Really?)
5. Maybe the most important paragraph here, and certainly the most exciting to me (and yes, I’m fully aware of how my own horse in this race colors my reaction here): By contrast, “Memphis” has no stars and an unknown score and story. But its producers believed that their show would become known as memorable entertainment if buzz spread among enough so-called Broadway taste-makers — who, in the case of “Memphis,” were not the usual critics, bloggers and veteran theatergoers, but instead African-American ministers, choir directors and black women.
It’s exciting to know that there are folks out there thinking about other ways to reach new audiences and not be beholden to NYT reviews and advertisements (which, to be honest, don’t seem to have anywhere near as much impact as they once did). It’s exciting to see that this strategy can and does work, if even only once in a while. But um…isn’t this the Tyler Perry model that’s been proven effective for years? Are we really just now trumpeting this as something new?
The article goes on to discuss other points of contact: lawyer groups, student outreach, lots of post-show discussions, street fairs, beauty salons — is any of this new? Are we reinventing the wheel each time we have this discussion?
And hell yeah, the reason that I care so passionately about this is because of my own show. Make that shows. And make that the shows of people of my generation, who are writing for audiences that reflect the world a lot of us have grown up in: diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, and all that good stuff; unafraid to cross boundaries, unafraid to speak to multiple audiences at the same time. It’s scary to think that our field is so far behind the times that it might not be able to provide those audiences, best intentions be damned.