Do you Hear the People Sing?
1st January 2006
The issue of race and theatre has long been a hotly debated topic by critics and theatre-goers alike. From the days when the character of Othello was strictly limited to white actors in black-face to the day when Denzel Washington played to sold-out audiences in the Broadway production of Julius Caesar, one cannot help but see the shift in racial perceptions on the commercial theatre scene. Yet, still so many raise the question: why isn’t there more “black” theatre on Broadway?
In both London and New York City, there exists a vibrant, popular, and decently priced black theatre scene, as well as a less-elitist, working class “white” theatre scene. All too often, however, the efforts of these groups are under-funded and so go unacknowledged by the mainstream entertainment media. Nonetheless, these theatre groups bring in diverse audiences looking for hard-hitting theatre. So why haven’t “the powers that be” on the commercial theatre scene acknowledged these audiences and started producing more evocative work on Broadway and the West End?
No statistic is needed to prove that upper class whites make up the majority of commercial theatre-goers. Some might argue that the reason for the lack of diversity in commercial theatre audiences lies simply in the ticket prices. A quick trip to the box office of any Broadway house will reveal the reality. At Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre, for example, ticket prices for The Lion King start at $55.00 and go up to $200.00, an incomprehensible amount of money to be spent on an evening of family entertainment, even for families of the middle class.
But is that really the reason? That the working class can’t afford theatre? That’s doubtful. Sure, you can take a walk out to the New Amsterdam Theatre and count the number of people who don’t belong to the affluent classes in the audience, and then compare that figure to the ticket prices, and think you have a quick and easy answer. But then hop on the subway on that same night and take a trip out to Madison Square Garden. Check out the New York Knicks basketball game, and count the black faces in that audience. Or check out a night of the World Wrestling Entertainment’s Monday Night RAW, and count the number of working class whites in the audience. Knicks ticket prices, which go up to $330.00 or more, quickly kill the argument that “black folks can’t afford commercial entertainment.” And WWE tickets, which can run up to $250 or more, bring working class whites into the stadium by the droves. Working class audiences, like any other audience, will pay to see what they want to see. So why don’t the commercial theatre producers see this and capitalize on it?
Today’s commercial theatre scene is thriving with bubblegum musicals; Sweet Charity, Good Vibrations, All Shook Up, Mama Mia!, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for example, are light, fun musicals which require very little thought from their audiences and which feature content that is soundly based in “white” culture. Even as musicals such as Avenue Q and Wicked raise the bar toward more cleverly crafted comedies, the cheesy world of bubblegum musicals continues to flourish.
Yet theatre goers have not kicked the classics to the curb. Last year alone, Broadway produced three Tennessee Williams pieces (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Ten by Tenn) and all three productions were very well-received. Arthur Miller’s After the Fall played a successful 45-performance run in 2004. Other successful classics of last year include David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Edward Albeee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother.
Black theatre has not been overlooked by commercial producers either. Right now on Broadway, The Color Purple is playing to sold out audiences every night. Admittedly, The Color Purple is produced and endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, and anything endorsed by Oprah will sell, be it books, plays, or hand lotion, so it is doubtful that the success of The Color Purple actually speaks to a commercial celebration of black culture. Still, Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change and Suzi Lori-Parks’ Top Dog/Underdog were two of the most successful shows on Broadway last year, and the 1995 revival of Smokey Joe's Cafe absolutely brought the house down throughout the entirety of its five-year run. In 2004, Audra McDonald won a Tony for