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.
''It depends on the show,'' says Donna Walker-Kuhne, a lawyer who has been a fierce advocate of audience development for theater and for classical ballet for a couple of decades. ''People are most interested in shows that reflect their interests or their culture. It also depends on how they are engaged or how they are being marketed to. That's what producers have to invest in.'' 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. 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.''
''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. Glover says: ''Memphis succeeds in showing people a little part of themselves, and since it is about the coming of rock and roll, which is a very American creation, it succeeds in reaching all Americans or lovers of the rock and roll, blues, gospel or R&B art forms.'' 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.''
Ken Roberson, a much-in-demand Broadway choreographer, says, ''It comes down to the producers simply making a decision to produce shows that consist of cast members and/or themes that will attract these audiences. The shows Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Color Purple, and In the Heights, are examples of this.'' In the Heights, Lin Manuel-Miranda's musical about Latino and black life in Manhattan's Washington Heights, received 13 Tony nominations and won for best musical in 2008.
Obviously, not everything on Broadway is a hit critically or in terms of box office. With the exception of In the Heights, none of the productions Roberson mentioned received rave reviews in mainstream media, but, because of marketing, that did not stop blacks from coming. As the New York Times theater critic noted at the closing of the The Color Purple, the musical adaptation of Alice Walker's seminal novel ''has been bringing black theatergoers to Broadway in unprecedented numbers.''