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Is Broadway Fading to Black?

May 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Entertainment, News, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) At the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway, an all-black cast, lead by the inimitable James Earl Jones, is re-interpreting Tennessee Williams in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Around the corner, at the Belasco Theater, another all-black cast is playing African-American, Dutch and German characters in the autobiographical rock musical “Passing Strange.”

Meanwhile, down the block, at the Booth Theater, Laurence Fishburne is bringing civil rights stalwart and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to life in the recently opened one-man show “Thurgood.” One street over, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, Morgan Freeman is playing a washed-up actor opposite Frances McDormand in the revival of “The Country Girl.”

This unusual confluence of shows with all-black or mixed-race casts, with black actors in roles that have typically been cast white, has some in the Broadway community wondering if blacks have finally “arrived” on Broadway.

It’s a new day and an exciting one,” said Marcia Pendelton, founder of Walk Tall Girl Productions, a marketing and group sales company that reaches out to non-traditional theatergoers. “African-American artists are able to do what they’ve been trained to do and play all the kinds of roles that we’re seeing on Broadway this season.”

Broadway is changing,” agreed David Binder, the lead producer of the “Raisin in the Sun” revival with Sean “Diddy” Combs. “It looks like New York City.”

A big reason for the change is that large black audiences are flocking in droves to see shows with some of their favorite stars and with themes that reflect their lives. “It’s not as mysterious as you think,” Pendelton told ABCNEWS.com. “The fact that more people are interested in bringing work [with African-Americans] to Broadway is because they have a viable audience of people of color. If there’s something for us to see, we will definitely come out.”

Stephen Byrd agrees. The rookie producer of “Cat” told ABCNEWS.com that his audience, which he estimates to be 70 to 80 percent black, has already brought in more than $12 million since it opened in March 6, making “Cat” one of the highest grossing shows on Broadway. “We’re helping Broadway,” Byrd said. “We’re bringing new audiences to Broadway.”

Change came slowly, however. In 1987, the all-black production of “Fences” the only play written by black Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson that was a box-office hit hardly drew a black crowd. Even in 2002, Russell Simmons’ “Def Poetry Jam” had difficulty attracting black theatergoers, while Suzan-Lori Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog” with Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def, became a commercial success with a diverse audience.

Many credit Binder’s “Raisin” with being the first to attract large black crowds to Broadway. But, even with Combs at the helm, Binder said many people were dubious about his play ever finding an audience. “Everyone said an African-American audience would never come to Broadway,” said Binder, who spent five years trying to get the show to the stage. “If I could get 20 percent of the audience to be black, it would be a miracle.”

Instead, what happened was the audience found the show over time through word of mouth. After a few weeks, propelled by an audience that was 80 percent black, the show began setting house records and, within nine weeks, had recouped its initial investment.

For many audience members, “Raisin” was their first Broadway experience. Binder recalled how some people arrived at the box office, only to discover that the show was sold out. Thinking it was like a movie theater, they would naively ask if they could get tickets for the show later that night.

When “The Color Purple” opened on Broadway in 2005, black audiences showed up in buses from cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. “These people segued from church right into ‘Purple,’ hats and all,” Byrd said. “They felt comfortable on Broadway.”

That was fortunate for Byrd, who, after years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, set out to do something different in the mid-1990s and found his way to the stage after reading a stack of books on how to be a Broadway producer. He was able to secure the rights to “Cat,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Death of a Salesman” and James Baldwin’s novel “Giovanni’s Room.” He’s planning a multi-racial version of “Streetcar.”

James Earl Jones signed on to “Cat” right away, telling Byrd, “I always wanted to play that cracker.” Still, it would take almost another 10 years before he was able to assemble the rest of the cast and the right director. Byrd’s mandate was that the play be an event. “With all due respect to August Wilson,” Byrd said, “like Woody Allen, his plays do well artistically but not commercially.”

And the reason for Byrd’s commercial success? “It’s a combination of an American classic written by an icon, and the cast,” he said. Along with James Earl Jones, the show’s cast includes Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni Rose (from the film “Dreamgirls“).

Liz McCann, the lead producer for “Passing Strange,” believes the appeal of “Cat” is its all-star cast. “It’s really an all-star revival,” she told ABCNEWS.com. “It’s going to entice the same kind of people who love to see stars.”

Passing Strange,” which is about a black man’s journey toward self-discovery that takes him from South Central Los Angeles to Holland and Germany, has a different appeal, McCann said. “Is ‘Passing Strange’ a black play because it has an all-black cast?” McCann wondered aloud. “No, I have a universal play.”

And it seems to be attracting a more universal audience, less than a quarter of which is black.

The headache for this conversation is what do you mean by ‘black?‘” McCann said. “I find it a very elusive question. When we talk about race, we lose sight of that fact, that our culture grows and festers on other life experiences. All blacks aren’t looking for their cultural identity in the same place. It’s the same with the presidential race.”

Pendelton believes a “Passing Strange,” which has struggled to attract an audience, and an all-black “Cat” should be able to co-exist on Broadway. “It’s about time this kind of story was told,” she said about “Passing Strange.” “We [black people] need to become interested in not only seeing stars.”

Byrd, who has seen “Passing Strange” four times, said he would have cast Lenny Kravitz in the show to draw a bigger crowd. He believes theater owners are looking for that solid event.

I don’t know if it’s primarily economic or about bringing cultural integrity to the masses.” But, he added, “If ‘Thurgood’ or ‘Passing Strange’ loses money, we’ll all catch hell. Once the theater owners start losing money, they become reluctant and throw everyone in the same pot.”


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