Contrary to popular belief, and the unfortunate stereotypical demographic of theater-goers, Black people have long had a presence on Broadway. In fact, we have a rich, documented history with theater that goes all the way back to 1821, when a free Black man from the West Indies, William Alexander Brown, opened up the African Grove Theatre in New York City with America’s first Black theater troupe.
Long before it was known as the “Great White Way”—an ironic double entendre that inadvertently points to the kinds of people who have historically been seen onstage the most, who are in charge of producing shows and deciding what shows get seen—Broadway was an avenue for African-Americans seeking to pave their own way and create opportunities for themselves as a way towards both socioeconomic and artistic advancements. And it’s because of that history that Ron Simons—a four-time Tony-winning veteran stage producer who’s had a hand in a handful of successful productions over the last 20 years including Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, For Colored Girls, Thoughts of a Colored Man, Porgy & Bess, Jitney and more—says it’s beyond time for the tables to turn when it comes to how we, as Black folks, engage with Broadway. But much like other institutions with systemic issues that fail to prioritize the inclusion of people from all walks of life—and for the sake of this conversation specifically, Black folks—that change has to begin from the inside first.
“I tell people, ‘If you throw a party and you want people to come, then you need to invite them.’ I feel like we’ve fallen down on the part where we’re supposed to invite people to be a part of the experience,” Simons said, during a phone interview with The Root. “Now, part of that is that often [Broadway does] not provide stories of interest to Black people, and also, sometimes, it’s just about the fact that we didn’t talk to them. You can put as many ads in the New York Times as you want to but in general, Black folks don’t read the New York Times. You tune into WBLS, you used to tune into Wendy Williams, and Charlamagne Tha God and places where we are. You know what I mean? So in the times that we did, when the industry did do plays that would be of interest to people of color, they didn’t spend enough money to advertise and to reach out to them. That’s something that Broadway has never done well and it continues to under-invest in those communities. If you under-invest in them, well then you shouldn’t expect an explosion of Black people.”
The industry should also check its own misconceptions when it comes to the viability and success of Black-leading or Black-centric shows. As Simons explained, during last fall’s run of Thoughts of A Colored Man, the audience was 75-90% Black nightly—a feat that rarely happens and one white play producers would kill for. But the reason why things turned out that way was due in large part to the intentionality Simons and his team had to make sure Black audiences were aware of the show and the belief that the subject matter was a story worth telling.
“I think that there are a lot of people who feel that Black stories are not commercial. Which is to say, they don’t make money,” Simons said. “Which is to say, they know that not a lot of white people are gonna come out and see a Black show. Now of course, if you talk about Audra McDonald, perfect exception because she is a goddess. If she’s in a show, believe me, people will come out and see them perform. But on the other hand, there is this mindset that if it’s a Black story, will it be able to sell tickets? This is true across the industry, it’s not just Broadway.”
And it’s that mindset, coupled with the industry’s lack of intentionality behind pushing our shows to the forefront, that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the hurdles Black Broadway actors and show producers still have to jump over to get our stories out there. And while the onus lies primarily on the industry itself to reckon with their ways, and heed the requests and demands from various organizations pushing for better, such as the Broadway Advocacy Coalition (BAC), Broadway for Racial Justice, Black Theatre Coalition, Black Theatre United, We See You, White American Theater and more, there are things Black audiences can do to help turn the tide and get more invested into art done for us, by us.
One way is to, of course, buy tickets to Black shows when they come out. (Might I suggest these six shows that are either currently showing or are slated to debut this fall for starters: Topdog/Underdog, The Piano Lesson, Ohio State Murders, Chicago, Death of a Salesman, and Ain’t No Mo’. ) The other way is to actually invest in Black plays with monetary donations that go towards production, the actors, artists and various needs for the show.
“It doesn’t have to be $25,000 or $10,000. But people need to stand up and recognize that without support, we could go away. We could really, seriously, truly go away. And what a loss that would be because if I went away, there would be nobody telling all the stories I‘ve been telling. Maybe somebody, probably not,” Simons said. “One by one, show by show, it’s my job to make people understand that Black stories are not only important—they’re viable. I always want to get more Black people to see our stories, to tell our truths. And that’s why I support Black storytellers.”