Broadway’s Racial Divide

New York Times: “Urban theater — or what has been called over the years inspirational theater, black Broadway, gospel theater and the chitlin circuit — has been thriving for decades, selling out some of the biggest theaters across the country and grossing millions of dollars a year….The word in the industry is that urban theater is about to go mainstream.”

So let me get this straight. Theater that has proven consistently popular among audiences and that has consistently sold out theaters is not considered mainstream? Simply because of the race of its cast and theatergoers? I have to ask: What does African American-based theater have to do in order to be recognized as “mainstream?” Or perhaps the answer is more ingenuous: Great Jumping Jehosophat! Black people attend the theater too!

In fact, the Times, reporting on New Brunswick theatrical developments (including an all-black version of David Mamet’s American Buffalo), published more or less the same article nearly twenty years ago. Great Jumping Jehosophat! Black people attend the theater too!

A few weeks ago, I attended a revival of Follies, now playing in New York City Center. And one of the things that troubled me about the Follies show was that not one of the theatergoers was African-American. Every single person was white. The only black people in the room were the ushers directing septuagenarians to their seats. And it had me wondering whether I was living in 1957 or 2007.

Granted, one does not attend a Stephen Sondheim revival to find black people. But just as Hollywood continues to remain baffled that black people see movies, Broadway (or, more specifically, the New York Times) does not seem to understand that black people do indeed attend theater and that, heaven forfend, there may be something to this so-called “urban theater” after all! Yes, darling, this “urban theater” is something we simply muuuuuuuust bring up at the next neighborhood association meeting! But we muuuuuuuust see Follies first!

Why this ridiculous categorization of “urban theater?” I certainly don’t call Zora Neale Hurston an “urban writer,” Tupac Shakur an “urban rapper,” Paul Laurence Dunbar an “urban poet” or Scott Joplin an “urban pianist” (although at the 1893 World’s Fair, Joplin was banned from performing ragtime inside the Midway, presumably because he was considered too “urban”). I admire an artist great not because she is “urban” or because she has a darker skin color, but because she produces great art.


  1. The Times article on New Brunswick theater should surely indicate these are two different very different phenonmena. I find Tyler Perry’s Madea movies hilarious, but it’s clear that this genre is not artistically challenging, that it’s aimed nearly entirely at African American middle-aged churchwomen who want an uplifting romance with comedy elements. This is not “great art”; this is not August Wilson or Suzan-Lori Parks or Adrienne Kennedy. This is the equivalent of “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” or “Jewtopia.”

    You really seem to be blaming the Times for no reason at all.

  2. Do you really not understand what is meant by “mainstream”? It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the number of tickets sold or whatever. Something is typically said to “go mainstream” when it becomes popular among white people, specifically those white people generally noticed by the New York Times and other such press organs. This is not exactly a new development.

  3. We have an embarrassment of Richards here.

    Isn’t the analogy to urban theater urban fiction — writers such as Teri Woods, Vikki Stringer, Shannon Holmes, Sister Souljah, Solomon Jones, Nikki Turner, Omar Tyree and Pamela M. Johnson?

  4. I’ve worked in the Atlanta theatre scene for the past 5 years, and I’ve noticed one hard and fast rule: if a play appeals at all to the black community, it will sell at least twice as well as a play that doesn’t. Not only do African Americans attend the theatre, they do so in droves, passionately and reliably.

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