I've always been a theatre kid at heart. And nothing says summer like a theatre trip to New York, a place teeming with theatre spectators, many of whom, like myself travel to experience what Broadway has to offer.
This year, my eyes are fixated on the Gershwin's Porgy & Bess revival featuring five-time Tony award winner Audra McDonald. It's not often that Black casts are featured on Broadway, and even rarer for the lead actress to win a Tony for Best Performance in a Musical. Such is the case for Audra McDonald. As a theatregoer, the show is a seemingly rare opportunity to experience Black theatre on Broadway -- a place often perceived as uncharted territory for Black audiences. That perception appears to be declining as the theatre industry relies on celebrities, and nontraditional casting to target Black audiences.
As in the case of Broadway's revival of A Street Car Named Desire featuring Hollywood stars, Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood, also a show traditionally played by white actors. According to the TheRoot.com, "April 22, marks the first time the 1947 play has appeared on Broadway with a multiracial cast." Although, the revival of A Street Car Named Desire isn't the first of its kind, it restricts the notion that black casts are only limited to traditional casting. A claim often met with skepticism.
In 2011, New York magazine writer John Lahr wrote a wish list of "eliminations" for the upcoming theatre season. He wrote, "And no more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson." Let's just say the comment didn't go over well; prompting a tidal wave of counter arguments, all the while confirming why these remakes exist historically.
Despite the criticism, lack of Black theatre, and the mind-set that African-Americans are reluctant to go to the theatre, these shows have done exceptionally well. According to TheGrio.com:
"People of color in attendance make up a smaller portion of the box office, with 76 percent of tickets being sold to whites. But last year, despite the down economy, Broadway posted record revenue numbers. And some who keep an eye on Broadway have said the increased number of diverse offerings is one reason for that."
The shift to diverse theatre is becoming abundant as cultures intertwine and reach a pivotal point of acceptance. In an effort to follow the shift and capture audiences of color, theatres are incorporating a number of tactics, all of which compensate for the increase of Black audiences. Celebrity casting and nontraditional casting are perhaps the most recognizable, but certainly there are other tactics:
In 2005, Oprah Winfrey endorsed the musical adaptation of The Color Purple. The title was changed to Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Color Purple on Broadway.
In 2010, a focus group was conducted with a dozen African-American women, all of whom had seen the Broadway musical Memphis. The purpose of the focus group was to assess the show's tagline, "The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll." According to the New York Times, "The use of focus groups is one of several diversity strategies, aggressive by theater standards, used not only by "Memphis" but also by the new play "Race", also a show centered on black characters, who are rarely in the forefront of major plays and musicals."
Theatres are beginning to build awareness through the church in an effort to build a strong word-of-mouth.
According to NCTC.org: "Group sales are a cornerstone of commercial success for most shows". The larger number of Black audiences reported at the Broadway shows: "Race" "Memphis" and "Fela" were attributed to group sales.
In reality, these strategies graze the surface of another complex issue: Understanding the disconnect between black audiences and the theatre industry. If the key is to get black audiences involved, why not start from the root of the issue? According to Clayton Lord of the ArtsJournal.com:
"To understand why there are so few audience members of color in our theatres, we have to understand why there are so few works by artists of color in our theatres, which in turn means we have to understand why there are so few artists and administrators of color in our offices, and why our boards look so homogenous, and why almost all of our major theatre companies are historically white-run and produce historically white work from a historically white canon."
Although, these strategies do little to decipher the root of an even bigger issue amongst the theatre industry, they do show some process. Black audiences are now seen as a theatre market and where there's a demand, hopefully, there will continue to be shows.
In the meantime, the theatre industry should take a closer look at understanding the bigger picture. Black audiences should feel included rather than targeted: Increasing the appearance of all-black casts, reevaluating the notion that black casts are only limited to traditional casting, and dismissing the mindset that Black audiences are less reluctant to go to the theatre, are all great starting points. Otherwise, the attempts at attracting Black audiences will remain at the surface.