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

A number of productions, from Fela! to Fences, featuring black performers, are nominated for a record number of Tony Awards this weekend. But notwithstanding the power of Denzel, most Broadway audiences remain overwhelmingly white.

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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. (There was some overlap between seasons with Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.) The overall gross annual revenue is something like $700 million--even in these dire and confused economic times

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. It is up for 11 Tonys, including several for Bill T. Jones, who wrote, directed and choreographed the production.

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. It's been nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including best actor in a drama (Washington), best actress in a drama (Viola Davis), best supporting actor in a drama (Stephen McKinley Henderson), best director (Kenny Leon) and best original music (Branford Marsalis).

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. Grier, whose last performance is this weekend, has been nominated for the best supporting actor award. (Dennis Haysbert of 24 fame will take over Grier's role.) 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. It has been nominated for best revival of a musical, but it closed after a disappointing two-month run.

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. Blacks and Latinos, including Jesse L. Martin and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, are among those slated for those casts. Judging from the packed houses, regional theater appears to fare better than Broadway. Indeed, some of these Tony-nominated productions, including Memphis, started out in regional theater in Washington, the Midwest and California. And then there is, of course, ''the chitlin' circuit.'' Don't even think about showing up at the last minute for one of Tyler Perry's Madea theatricals!

So what brings blacks to Broadway?

''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. When they hear that Denzel Washington is on Broadway, she says, ''The question is, 'Can I get a ticket?'''

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.''