Micropolis: Why Broadway Audiences Are Whiter Than Ever

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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)