Why Aren’t More Blacks in the Audience at Broadway Plays?

E.R. Shipp, The Root, June 11, 2010

Several plays that have been wooing audiences and critics alike and with particular interest to black folks are up for a record number of Tony Awards. So how well is Broadway–or Off Broadway, for that matter–doing in terms of attracting blacks?

About 75 percent of Broadway theatergoers are white, though according to the Broadway League, which co-sponsors the Tony Awards, audiences have become “slightly more diverse over the past decade.” Blacks, Latinos and Asians made up the balance. In the 2008-2009 season, when shows included In the Heights, Rent, Thurgood and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and the all-black version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, less than 3 percent of 12.15 million tickets sold were to black Broadway theatergoers. In recent years, when the lineup included the Oprah Winfrey-produced The Color Purple and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof–starring James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose and directed by Debbie Allen–black turnout was double that. {snip}

Making it on Broadway is not easy. Even now Fela!, a musical about the life of the musician and Nigerian activist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who died in 1997, is struggling to fill seats. Its audience, according to the New York Times, is full of white people, who apparently love the spectacle of blacks dancing and singing–even if they don’t understand anything about Fela or Nigerian history. {snip}

On the other hand, there’s a revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning drama, Fences, which is breaking records at the box office, thanks to the marquee allure of Denzel Washington. {snip}

Holding steady at the box office is David Mamet’s confrontational drama, Race, where comic actor David Alan Grier plays it straight as a black lawyer representing a white man accused of raping a black woman. {snip} Then there’s Ragtime, based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, which focuses on three families–one of them black–trying to adjust to rapidly changing life in early 20th century New York. {snip}

Broadway, of course, isn’t alone in this struggle. Off Broadway shows also strive to diversify their audiences, whether it is for those at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) or the Vineyard Theater, which presented The Scottsboro Boys, or the venerable Joe Papp Public Theater, which among various events, is producing The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice in repertory this summer in its Shakespeare in the Park series. {snip}

So what brings blacks to Broadway?

{snip} Walker-Kuhne [Donna Walker-Kuhne] formed her company, Walker International Communications Group, in 2002 to more formally promote what she had been doing since the 1980s: convincing the theater world to reach out to people of color. Some producers are quite receptive; some don’t think they need people like her; and, then, there are those who call at the last minute.

“It takes a good two months or so to just penetrate the market,” which, she says, includes advertising through black media. “The more we use black media, the more they do for us,” Walker-Kuhne says. She encourages producers to respect black media and not expect them to run ads for free just because blacks are in a cast.

As Walker-Kuhne sees it, money is no more an issue for blacks than for other theatergoers who know how to work the discounts, find the coupons, come in as groups, whatever. {snip}

Like to Memphis. According to the New York Times, Memphis, a musical about the early days of rock and roll in the 1950s and the racial interactions associated with that, “has attracted one of the most racially diverse audiences on Broadway in recent memory.”

“I think it’s a remarkably diverse season, and I’m encouraged by it,” says Sue Frost, a producer of Memphis, which has received eight Tony nominations, including one for best lead actress in a musical for Montego Glover. {snip} The show received a major boost when first lady Michelle Obama came with her daughters and her mother for a March matinee performance. After that, according to Frost, there was a marked increase in the number of families of color in the audience.

“Like any other group of people, I think blacks like seeing themselves on stage. By that I mean truthful, artful, honest representations of the African-American experience,” says Glover, who plays Felicia, the love interest of a white DJ who becomes smitten by black music–and her. “Of course, they identify in other ways, but when we’re talking about one of the major draws, seeing their reflections is very high on the list.”

{snip}

“I cannot honestly say that I feel that the average Broadway producer will go out of his or her way to attract a diverse audience unless he or she has ‘gone out of the way’ to put these very diverse people on the stage,” says Roberson, who is working on a Washington revival of the 1980s Broadway hit Sophisticated Ladies, and is also in pre-production for an upcoming Broadway musical, Unchain My Heart, about Ray Charles.

{snip}

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