Theatre Thursdays: Broadway in Black

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Gentle Readers,

This is my last post as a regular writer for Lady Geek Girl & Friends. It’s been a wonderful yearlong ride, so big thanks to everyone here at the blog and you all for reading my posts. I hope that I’ve written something in the past twelve months that made you think a little. Now that we’ve gotten all the sappiness out of the way, let’s talk about theatre. More specifically, let’s talk about diversity in theatre. I’m always on the lookout for good, diverse theatre, as well as projects and performances that reach out to non-mainstream audiences. I’ve made argument after argument about the importance of more inclusive theatre. At this stage, to rehash each and every one for you would be redundant. So let me take you somewhere else.

Last Friday, I was in New York City. The only thing that makes me sad about trips to New York is that it can be difficult to see more than one play a night, but on this particular occasion I saw Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. This play, whose title is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes, works through issues of Black pride, belonging, and ambition via the story of the Younger family in Chicago’s South Side, three generations of which live in the same rundown apartment. A sudden windfall and subsequent betrayal displays the tension between ambition, heritage, wealth, and dignity. While the story is written to be personal, it’s not hard to see how the Youngers are a microcosm for Black America.

Okonedo, at the After Earth premiere

Okonedo, at the After Earth premiere.

This production, which is running until June 15th at the Barrymore if you’re looking for a strong piece of Black theatre to see, is packed with serious star power. The role of Beneatha Younger is played by Anika Noni Rose, whom you’ll recognize as the voice of Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. Ruth Younger is played by the Academy Award-nominated Sophie Okonedo, and the role of Walter Younger is played by none other than Denzel Washington. Directed by the indefatigable Kenny Leon, the resulting performance was one worthy of its cast’s billing. That quality is all tied up in the stage presence of the cast. Even the weakest performances on that stage were refreshingly genuine, especially as much the play’s dialogue is so explicitly about weighing the merits of a particular argument versus the other. It made the emotional highs of this production that much more visceral. Consider the play highly recommended.

Raisin in the Sun is just one example of the pretty good time African Americans are having on Broadway. Consider After Midnight, which profiles Duke Ellington, or Lady Day, or the upcoming Holler if Ya Hear Me, which I just will not stop writing posts about. I’m loving that upswing. If, in a cultural milieu where we’re constantly beset by detrimental attempts at colorblind casting and people opining that the era of significant racial difference in opportunity is over, we’re still managing to create more and more opportunities for Black artists, then I’d call that a victory. It is, however, not entirely that simple. Kinky Boots’ Billy Porter had this to say:

It ebbs and flows, …Black people are on an upswing now. But if you ask the Asians, they may have another story to tell.

r-ASIAN-AMERICANS-BROADWAY-large570Porter references data from the AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition) which found that “the percentage of minority actors working on Broadway and at the top sixteen not-for-profit theater companies in New York City rose just two percent during the 2011-12 season, as compared with the previous season.” A few striking examples put this data into very clear perspective, including the 2012 fiasco surrounding Moises Kaufman’s staging of The Nightengale, a play set in China which featured no actors of Chinese descent. You can read more of the data here, which indicates gains for African American and Latino performers, yet a dearth of opportunities for AAPI performers. We’re not really winning the representation game until all underrepresented groups are making gains, and we haven’t even begun to discuss the concerns of people with disabilities.

This problem goes beyond just performer representation. The same AP article which quotes Porter above also notes that whites buy 78% of all Broadway tickets and that the average showgoer is forty-two years old. Certainly, cost is a factor, but those numbers indicate that even if Broadway is becoming more diverse on one side of the proscenium, the other side is distinctly white and middle-aged. Changing those demographics is not only advantageous from the view of diversity and opportunity. Broadway, as it stands, is bleeding audiences members. While maintaining revenues through premium sales and rising prices, visitors to theatres on Broadway continue to shrink in number. Cultivating audiences in non-mainstream communities is the best way to keep the Great White Way in the black.

chuck-mee_099-bw1So why all this? What’s the point? This is my last post, at least for a while, at this blog and we’re on the subject of theatre, so listen up. I want to use whatever small stage I have to encourage what I’ve been talking about constantly these past twelve months. We’ve got to increase the diversity of theatre offerings and theatre audiences. Obviously, it’s not all about Broadway, and there’s diverse theatre going on all over the country, but these are problems that Broadway’s example illuminates over our nation’s entire theatre community. For the development of the art of theatre, for the sake of actors and audiences and crew, we’ve got to get invested and involved with diversity therein. We live in an ever diversifying country and a theatre of what Chuck Mee calls “all-intact white people” simply will not do anymore.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.