Is the Great White Way Finally Seeing Other Colors?

Is Theatre Just for White People?

That’s pretty much what academic Tom Loughlin said this week, with a post at his blog called The Great Whiter-Than-Ever Way.

The Broadway League’s recent demographic report found that 83% of tickets were bought by caucasian theatregoers. Loughlin writes: “I think it’s safe to make the following conclusion: Theatre is primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners.”

The blog has, unsurprisingly, drawn plenty of responses, both below the line and elsewhere in the blogosphere. At least some have settled into considered debate. Scott Walters calls for change and consideration beyond the surface issues, and 99 Seats duly attempts to engage with it on that level, while Art Hennessey has thrown some wider statistics about audience diversity into the mix at his blog.

This materializes at a time of seemingly unprecedented exposure for black female playwrights on Broadway.

Katoria Hall

This season, for apparently the first time, Broadway will host as many as four distinct works written or adapted by African American women. Already running is the Martin Luther King Jr. play The Mountaintop, by the young playwright Katori Hall, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Also running is  Stick Fly, Lydia R. Diamond’s upper-middle-class family drama, featuring Dule Hill, Mekhi Phifer and Tracie Thoms. And the  new edition of the Gershwins-DuBose Heyward opera Porgy and Bess, with a revised book by Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog /Underdog). And angling for a theater this spring is By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by another Pulitzer recipient, Lynn Nottage (“Ruined”).

Some of the women who are being produced on Broadway this season say they are not completely sure how to characterize their rise to prominence — or even totally comfortable with their being looked upon as part of a breakthrough season.

Lydia R. Diamond

Lydia R. Diamond stops herself from the kind of pronouncement that implies a circle has been closed. Not enough work by enough people of color has regularly been produced for any kind of victory to be declared.

Says Diamond: “If Suzan-Lori and Katori and Lynn and I got together we might say, ‘It’s a little safer today, and oh, look how far we’ve come. But we still have a long way to go.’ I feel that it’s important we learn from this moment, but not be so comforted by it that it has corrected all the wrong.”

Nottage takes this observation a step further, arguing that black women remain marginalized in many other facets of the entertainment industry, and figure more centrally in writing for theater because the form has been more welcoming. “There are more of us writing at a high level than ever before,” she says. “But we have to find a medium in which we can do it. And it’s partly because we’re shut out of film and TV that we are writing for this medium.”

Lynn Nottage

Broadway is also noticing the potency of African American ticket buyers, an economic force that for a long time had been undervalued.

“I think there’s a sense in the industry that there’s a black audience out there interested and engaged,” Nottage says.

In a perfect world this confluence of playwrights-of-color on Broadway would be the norm, not the exception. Playwrights rightly bristle at being sorted into categories and resist having their works considered from the perspective of the author’s racial or ethnic background. Good work should speak for itself.

Kenny Leon, the director of the recent smash revival of Fences,  directed both The Mountaintop and Stick Fly. He notes, “I can’t remember the last time there were three women playwrights on Broadway during the same season, let alone three African-American women.”

Katori Hall’s ebullience over reaching Broadway is tempered by an awareness that this season is hardly a usual one. “I’m used to the Great White Way being the Great White Way,” she said, “so yes it feels really good. But I’m hesitant to celebrate because next season we may be back to white male writers only. Let’s be cautious.”

Diamond has witnessed the enthusiasm and the sheer numbers of African-Americans coming to Broadway that has made the recent revivals of “Fences,” and “A Raisin in the Sun” (also directed by Mr. Leon) and the all-black staging of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” directed by Debbie Allen, solid hits. (An all-black “Streetcar Named Desire” is on the docket for 2012.)

“I remember standing in line for The Color Purple with my in-laws and my mother,” in 2005, she said, “and seeing black audiences lined up around the block twice. That was sort of mind blowing for me. I thought, I don’t know why we don’t see more things like this here if there are this many people lining up to see them.”

“I’ve worked very hard with marketing people to include African-Americans,” she said. “I know that there’s a huge population interested in seeing themselves reflected onstage.” Yet, she added, “At the same time I don’t think my work speaks only to an African-American audience.”

Leon pointed to other black female writers who deserve to have their work seen on Broadway stages.

Lynn Nottage is a top-of-the-line, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who should have her plays on Broadway,” Mr. Leon said. “Regina Taylor is writing some great work. Pearl Cleage is still writing good plays.”

Suzan Lori Parks

It is, of course, an uphill battle for any emerging playwright to get new work presented on Broadway. But while Ms. Hall cheerfully said, “The fact that me and Lydia and Suzan are coming to Broadway I have to see as something of a triumph,” she still has discouraging memories of regional theaters, where much new American work first gets seen.

“I’ve had frank conversations with theaters who say, ‘We love your play, but we’ve already done a play by another black person this year,’ or ‘I don’t think the kind of people you write about are the ones our audience wants to see,’ ” she said. “Up and coming young black female writers are still struggling to have their voices heard and have their plays produced. I may be on the mountain right now, but they are still in the trenches.”

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