More Black Faces on the Great White Way

But what do these new race-related productions mean for Stepin Fetchit, skin color and the N-word?

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Two new plays with black characters as central figures opened on Sunday. It will probably add more fuel to the ongoing debate about whether having a black family in the White House has prompted artistic directors and commercial producers to invite more African-American actors, writers and directors into their house.

At least 20 shows in which race plays a role have opened in New York since September. The two new shows are smaller, off-Broadway efforts, but the lack of diversity has been pretty much the same there, too. I haven't had a chance to see A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, Kia Corthron's play at Playwrights Horizons that, according to what I've read, mixes theology and ecology in a story about an African student who moves in with a troubled African-American family in a drought-stricken rural community.

But I did catch the Godlight Theatre Company's production of In the Heat of the Night, a stage version of the iconic 1967 movie that starred Sidney Poitier as black police detective Virgil Tibbs who is drawn into solving a murder case in the still-segregated South. It's playing in the tiny black box theater at the 59E59 Theaters, and its young 10-member cast, several of them doubling and tripling up on roles, is so hardworking and sincere that I wish I could say that I liked the show. But, despite Joe Tantalo's arty staging and a strong performance by Sean Phillips as Tibbs, I couldn't figure out why they'd decided to make a play out of this story--which, as my husband noted when he refused to see it with me, has already enjoyed success as a novel, a movie and a TV series--if they didn't have anything new to say.

Can a black character act foolish on stage without being compared to Stepin Fetchit as I did in talking about the character Anthony Mackie plays in the new Martin McDonagh comedy A Behanding in Spokane?

Is it OK for characters to say the word "nigger" in a play? And does it make a difference if the playwright putting the words in their mouths is black (as Suzan-Lori Parks does in her latest work The Book of Grace) or white (as McDonagh repeatedly does in A Behanding in Spokane)?

Should the color of an actor's skin pass by with no more mention than a character's hair color (which is how it was treated in This, which played at Playwrights Horizons last fall) or does it have to be dealt with head-on (as in the musical Memphis)?

I'm not even going to pretend to have answers to these questions. But I am glad that I got to see these shows, and I'm hoping that I'll have lots of others to see and similar questions to ponder in seasons to come.

This article previously appeared on Janice C. Simpson's blog, Broadway & Me.

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