Is Broadway Going Black?

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 "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 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.

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