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

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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?

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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.

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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.''

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''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.''

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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.''

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''A lot of the would-be audience members who are on the margins,'' Roberson continues, ''will not make an effort to attend a Broadway production unless they feel that in some way they were being asked to 'come on down' by way of their respective cultural media outlets.''

The producers of Memphis started asking theatergoers to come on down years before the musical even made it to Broadway. Three years ago, Frost and her producing partners started the trek to Broadway with a three-week run in Seattle. They reached out to influential church and civic leaders, inviting them to see Memphis, give their feedback and, if they would, spread the word. ''We started it early, and we have been consistent about it,'' Frost says.

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As the musical made its way to Broadway, some of those Seattle leaders contacted their friends and colleagues in New York to, again, spread the word. The summer before the show opened, they sent teams to street fairs to pass out fliers and talk up the upcoming production. They also pushed group ticket sales. Frost and her partners had been involved in non-commercial theater for years, so, she says, ''Audience education and development is sort of in our DNA.'' With seed money from producers and investors, they launched a program, Inspire Change, to encourage young people to come to the show. The money covers tickets and transportation, but also sponsors cast members' visits to schools before the students come to the show; post-performance, they participate in ''talk-backs'' with the cast. They have produced study guides and encouraged eager theatergoers to talk about their experiences via Facebook. In March alone, she says, Memphis had more than 7,000 young people in its audiences.

Frost and Walker-Kuhne are on the same page. The latter does more than strong-arm and charm theater producers or do theater-related public relations and marketing. She takes audience development to a new generation. Literally. She and a partner, Cherine Anderson, formed Impact Broadway last year to bring high school and college students into the theater orb. Some 300 young people have attended Off Broadway shows throughout New York City as well as three Broadway productions: In the Heights, Memphis and Fela! They have participated in discussions with performers and the behind-the-scenes people. They have used Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to tell their friends about their experiences. And some of them have formed theater clubs at their schools.

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About 100 of them—chosen on the basis of essays, their grades and demonstrated interest in theater—will attend the dress rehearsal for the Tonys. And on Sunday they, their teachers and their friends will watch a simulcast of the awards show over dinner at a Harlem restaurant while also meeting with Broadway veterans. Walker-Kuhne's fear, however, is that theater will be driven by big names and revivals. So one of her missions is to encourage producers to make room for new voices, new playwrights and new works.

"The deeper our presence,'' Walker-Kuhne says of blacks as theater patrons, ''the deeper the impact on the work we see. It's a numbers game.''

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E.R. Shipp won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996.

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