Streams

Micropolis: Why Broadway Audiences Are Whiter Than Ever

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Blair Underwood (Stanley) with Nicole Ari Parker (Blanche) (Ken Howard)

During a recent church service, hundreds of worshipers looked on from the pews at the Greater Allen A.M.E. Zion Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, as Rev. Floyd Flake made an announcement.

"We have guests in the house," he said. 

The guests were Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker and Daphne Rubin Vega – cast members from the rebooted production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" that includes minority actors playing roles traditionally played by white actors.

"I think it is important for us as African-American people to understand that Broadway doesn’t belong to white folk only," Flake said.

Broadway audiences historically have been overwhelmingly white. Last season, 83 percent of Broadway audiences were Caucasians – the highest percentage since the industry began keeping numbers in 1998, according to the Broadway League.

The recent outreach effort in Queens was part of a push by "Streetcar" producers to tap into black Broadway audiences. Just 1.5 percent of the overall audience last season was African American – the lowest it’s ever been.

Many Broadway playwrights, actors and producers of color, say the chronic homogeneity of Broadway audiences stems from a confluence of factors, including high ticket prices, a dearth of minority actors on stage and tunnel-vision within the industry.

(Photo: Samuel L. Jackson plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Bassett plays the Lorraine Motel maid Camae in the play "The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall. Photo by Joan Marcus)

A Cultural Gap, and Broadway Elitism

James Hatch, the co-author of A History of African American Theatre, said black audiences have long been marginalized from Broadway.

He named segregated seating, racist caricatures of black characters and prohibitive ticket prices as contributing factors.

“Theatergoing on Broadway is supported by families who collected programs going back 50 or 80 years,” said Hatch. “Blacks did not have that tradition, and apparently still don't.”

And many say that rift still exists.

David Alan Grier, who is currently starring in "Porgy and Bess," said that within black communities in New York, there exists a serious disconnect from the theater industry.

Grier said outreach to communities of color is critical to building awareness. Once they knew a relevant show was on stage, he said residents of black communities would go out of their way to attend.

"That’s human nature: to want and desire to go and experience something, and connect with it,” he said.  “That’s what makes any theatergoer latch on to something."

(Photo: Blair Underwood and others from Streetcar Named Desire, at church in Queens. Courtesy of Javae Branch from Loray Blue photography)

 But David Henry Hwang, an Asian American who wrote "M. Butterfly" and "Chinglish," said Broadway isn’t doing enough to cultivate minority audiences.

"[There are] very few people in the industry, if any, who would say Broadway’s doing a very good job reaching minority audiences,” he said.

Hwang said it’s “scary” for producers to commission a minority playwright to pen something that appeals to a broad swathe of the Broadway-going audience.

But ignoring younger, more diverse audiences, he said, is not only bad business sense, but wrongheaded.

"This is about American culture, and American culture becomes impoverished when it doesn’t reflect all Americans," he said. "Any culture becomes impoverished when it only reflects a tiny sliver of its population."

A Paradigm Shift

Judging from the attendance at a recent production of "Streetcar," the producer's outreach has borne fruit; a number of audience members from Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens said they bought tickets after attending an outreach event.

Sammie Senyana , 24, only recently attended her first Broadway show, "Porgy and Bess," when she saw an ad for "Streetcar" in Playbill.

"I saw Blair Underwood and I was like, ‘I’m coming to that!'" she said. "You can see them breathe, you can see them tick"

But Senyana’s sister, Brenda, said Broadway could do a better job of attracting black audiences.  

"I refuse to believe it’s just money," Brenda said. "I think people are willing to pay. … People can find the money to come. It’s really about feeling it’s worth it."

Added Sammie, "I don’t think a lot of people feel they’re a part of this world."

Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright who scripted off-Broadway's "Ruined," said producers are missing an opportunity by not doing more to target audiences of color.

She also said black philanthropists have been largely absent from supporting community theater.

The erosion of black community theater, she said, has led to a lack of theater literacy within black communities, and the disappearance of black theatergoers from Broadway.

But Stephen Hendel, the producer of now-shuttered "Fela," which has an all-black cast, suggested audiences aren’t willing to cross racial boundaries or get out of their comfort zones.

"I think it’s a major issue actually,” he said.

Despite the press for "Fela," and for the financial backing from Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinket Smith, Hendel says the show lost money.

White audience members initially made up nearly 70 percent of the turnout for "Fela," but their numbers consistently decreased during the show’s run.

"I think it wasn’t a show for them because it had an all-black cast," said Hendel.

Streetcar and beyond

The force behind "A Streetcar Named Desire" is producer Stephen Byrd, a former investment banker who says there's money to be made in black Broadway productions.

"Streetcar" has generally only sold 70 percent of its tickets, but the show has been successful enough to extend its run into August despite harsh words from Ben Brantley at The New York Times, and John Lahr at The New Yorker, Byrd said.

(Photo:"Streetcar" producer Stephen Byrd at Sardi's. Byrd thinks that Broadway can expand its audience base by reaching out to minorities. Arun Venugopal/WNYC)

Despite last season's audience numbers, indicating an unusually low attendance by minorities, producers are reaching out to minority audiences,

Donna Walker-Kuhne says "producers are making an effort" to bring in more diverse theatergoers.

Walker-Kuhne heads an audience development company that worked with the producers of Porgy and Bess and other shows to draw black audiences.

She said the current roster of shows catering to African-Americans is clearly drawing a more diverse audience, which will be reflected in next year's numbers.

In addition to marketing, she says the industry needs far more black group sales ticketing agents, who know how to reach black tourists in large numbers, and help drive the crucial advance sales for shows aimed at them.

Although "it won't be overnight," she thinks the industry is laying the foundation for a more diverse theater culture.

"I am hopeful for this century, for this new decade, of how we're going to really change the audiences," she said.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the Greater Allen A.M.E. Zion Cathedral as the Calvary A.M.E. church. WNYC regrets the error.

Micropolis is WNYC’s ongoing series on street life and other corners of the city.

(Photo: David Alan Grier in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. Courtesy of Michael J. Lutch)

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Comments [10]

Harlan Van

Interesting topic. Important even. However, Arun did a bad reporting job. There is a long history of African-Americans and theater. A history of writing, producing, and attending. It seems as if so much written about blacks turns anecdote into 'fact' or reality. Research Arun, and you'll find things like the "Chitlin Circuit" and many other theater avenues well traveled by black theater goers. The main reason why Broadway looks as it does is because tickets are quite expensive, look outside broadway to find diversity in the seats. Plus, how exactly are 'colorfied' head counts taken?

Apr. 01 2013 12:31 PM
HipHopSays from Fort Greene/Clinton Hill

@monique you make some cogent points ... as someone who has been a b'way affecionado ever since interning with Actor's Equity and AFTRA during undergrad in recent years I have found I am less inclined to go to shows. in part it's because of the abundance of show's geared towards moms taking kids out for the day, and movies turn musical (ie: spiderman, once, legally blonde, billy elliot,mary poppins, et al). instead of b'way i have been enjoying the signature theatre's offerings (considered off b'way) which has a lower price point (all seats $25) and plays.

May. 25 2012 12:26 PM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

I find these kinds of stories problematic; one the one hand, you've got interviewees saying that both the audiences and the plays/musicals need to include more "minorities," but then producers and playwrights want to cater these pieces only to a specific minority group - so it really defeats the whole goal of diversifying the audience and Broadway itself.

I don't think we're making any great strides as a society when we continue to operate from a segregated mindset - I think we'd be a lot better off seeing actors of various races/skin colors in a variety of roles - unless the story line of a play musical is really, specifically, about a particular cultural or ethnic experience. I'm just as tired of seeing a monochromatic sea of faces as anyone. Audiences of all races need to stop expecting that their entertainment and art should exactly mirror themselves all the time, and should instead go see a play or a film with the goal of experiencing something from that character's point of view - no matter if that character shares the same skin color, gender, or sexual preference.

As a means to get a more diverse audience (in this case, a black audience) doing outreach in specific communities is a wonderful idea, as is staging professional productions within those communities. But it cannot be stated loud and clear enough that prime Broadway is completely unaffordable to many, many people from various backgrounds. I splurged once last year and bought 2 tickets to see the play Seminar, and tickets cost $175.00 each. As a writer and artist, I'm a prime candidate to want to see a play, but I can't afford to drop that kind of money that frequently, so I seek out theater at smaller venues. If Broadway producers truly want to bring in newer, more diverse audiences, they need to do more to make the experience affordable to a wider variety of people.

May. 25 2012 12:22 PM
David from Flushing

I was a bit taken back that Broadway even keeps track of the race of its audiences.

May. 25 2012 11:04 AM
kevin from upper LS

important article,i just wish, we all could come to terms, on just how limited, these abusrd, very artificial racial constructs, are. i don't have an answer for that,for the time being, we need a language to describe different groups of people. but, really now, 'caucasians'? mercifully, we don't say negroid or mongoloid anymore.

May. 25 2012 10:58 AM
Sharon from Queens

Theatre-going is alive and well in the African American community. But there are factors as to why we don't travel to Broadway, i.e. ticket prices, parking prices, meal prices, unpredictable public transporation options. Why must we always have to travel to Manhattan when there are adequate venues in the other boroughs? To name a few, the Billy Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn and the Black Spectrum Theatre in Queens (I'm sure there are others in the Bronx and Staten Island). Both venues are equipped to have a "Broadway" production without having to travel to Broadway. Why don't producers seek these venues out rather than thinking that the production must be "on Broadway"? Oh and by the way, I recently got rid of my collection of playbills collected over the years from plays I attended both on and off broadway due to space restrictions but this collection has nothing to do with the overall topic of discussion.

May. 25 2012 10:27 AM
Travelling Chitalian from Newark, NJ

I can't believe that a discussion of African Americans and Broadway could overlook The Color Purple!! The fact that it wasn't even mentioned causes the piece to lose credibility in my eyes as an accurate social commentary. That play certainly deserved at least a mention and some credit for drawing a very mixed audience and a good deal of acclaim.

May. 25 2012 09:45 AM
lpttocserp from Queens, New York

The Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York, at which the Rev Floyd H. Flake is senior pastor, is the church that was visited recently by the cast of A Streetcar Named Desire. It's too bad that this interesting piece begins with an error that the producers and/or fact checkers should have caught and corrected. One wonders about the quality of the research that resulted in the assumptions and conclusions made in the rest of the article.

May. 25 2012 08:51 AM
Scoot from Brooklyn

In the audio version of this story Stephen Hendel attributes the lack of interest in "Fela" to-wait for it- racism! "Fela" had a lot of issues surrounding it that might have limited the theater go-ers iterest in going. But that's not the point. NYC audiences are increadibly enlightened and game for plenty of challenging theater. Saying that "Fela"s closing is due to white theater goers latent racism (and I am being more sensitive than the producer was)is so patheitc as to be laughable. But personally, as a white person invested in the arts in this country, it made me want to puke!

May. 24 2012 10:17 PM
Monique Baptiste-Good from Paterson, NJ

Is it that blacks are not going to Broadway? Or are black patrons spending their dollars at other "off broadway" theaters?

Fundamentally, baseline assumptions in this article need clarifying, particularly this statement: “Theatergoing on Broadway is supported by families who collected programs going back 50 or 80 years,” said Hatch. “Blacks did not have that tradition, and apparently still don't.”

Perhaps Broadway is not, thanks to exorbitant ticket prices, sold out plays, etc. But, I'd venture to guess that theatergoing in the black community is just as alive as it has ever been. I wonder, would the author find patronage of "chit'lin curcuit" plays all but none existence? I would guess not. Several Black American millionnaires have made their fortunes in black theater. Tyler Perry comes to mind. I think to get the heart of the matter, the author should have dug a little deeper.

May. 24 2012 08:07 PM

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