The cast of the 2005 Broadway production of 'The Color Purple', produced by Oprah Winfrey. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Do you Hear the People Sing?

Best Featured Actress in a Play for her outstanding performance in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The problem, therefore, lies not in the assumption that black theatre isn’t “making it.” 
Arguably, the most produced black playwright in America is August Wilson.  Wilson’s work is constantly being produced by small commercial theatres and is well-supported by black and white audiences alike.  This may come as somewhat of a shock to the world, but white theatergoers enjoy black theatre!  And they are willing to pay big bucks to see the works of August Wilson produced by a professional team of artists and performers.  When I saw The Piano Lesson at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island in 2001, the audience was very diverse and the show was incredibly well-received.  It was a solid production with an incredible company and was produced in a target area for diversity.  Situated in the capitol city of the smallest state in the US, Trinity Rep brings in a diverse audience base from the inner cities to the affluent suburbs.  Trinity’s ticket prices range from approximately $25.00 to $60.00, not too far from the lowest prices of Broadway.  So what’s the difference?  Why is Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company bringing in a racially and economically diverse audience, while the commercial scene of New York City, the most diverse city in the world, does not?

Therein lies the answer.  New York City and London: two of the most diverse cities in the world.  Broadway and the West End: two of the biggest money-making attractions in two of the most diverse cities in the world.  Wouldn’t you think that there would be some cross-over in diversity?  But there’s not.  Why?  Because the commercial theatre scenes of New York and London cater to tourism.  It’s all about the deep pockets of the producers.  From the bubblegum themes to the outrageous ticket prices, the commercial theatre scene has its sites set clearly on the prize: the wonderful money-making world of tourism, where mindless theatre thrives, and bubblegum sells.  And guess what?  Black playwrights are not writing bubblegum!  Therefore, the world of black theatre parallels the “white” shows which tackle equally intelligent and challenging topics; for every revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, there will be an equally well-received revival of A Raisin in the Sun.  But in the mean time, the majority of the commercial theatre scene is made up of bubblegum; and as long as Broadway producers continue to cater to tourism, white playwrights will continue to dominate the genre.

The producers of Broadway and the West End are severely overlooking a potentially enormous audience base: the locals of the giant cities in which they dwell!!  New Yorkers and Londoners alike are crying out for real, hard-hitting theatre; and since the commercial scenes of their cities have failed to deliver, the people, blacks and whites alike, have turned to alternate art sources to seek what they desire.  Off-off Broadway houses and the Fringe are producing real, evocative theatre that people want to see, and they are doing it well.  The people have spoken; if Broadway and the West End want to cater to tourism, then the locals of New York and London will find their art and their entertainment elsewhere.  Everyone loves a good, fun, mindless show once in a while… but at the end of the day, the people want the people’s theatre. 

By Jill A. Bolstridge
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The cast of the 2005 Broadway production of 'All Shook Up'. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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

Audra McDonald at the 2004 Tony Awards. She won four awards, including one for Best Supporting Actress in a Play for her performance in the 2004 revival of 1959's 'A Raisin in the Sun' by Lorraine Hansberry. Photo by Aubrey Reuben.
Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner in the 2004 revival of Edward Albee's 1963 play, 'Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Photo by Ari Mintz of 'Newsday.'