Is Broadway Going Black?

For many audience members, "Raisin" was their first Broadway experience. Binder recalled how some people arrived at the box office, only to discover that the show was sold out. Thinking it was like a movie theater, they would naively ask if they could get tickets for the show later that night.

When "The Color Purple" opened on Broadway in 2005, black audiences showed up in buses from cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. "These people segued from church right into 'Purple,' hats and all," Byrd said. "They felt comfortable on Broadway."

That was fortunate for Byrd, who, after years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, set out to do something different in the mid-1990s and found his way to the stage after reading a stack of books on how to be a Broadway producer. He was able to secure the rights to "Cat," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Death of a Salesman" and James Baldwin's novel "Giovanni's Room." He's planning a multi-racial version of "Streetcar."

James Earl Jones signed on to "Cat" right away, telling Byrd, "I always wanted to play that cracker." Still, it would take almost another 10 years before he was able to assemble the rest of the cast and the right director. Byrd's mandate was that the play be an event. "With all due respect to August Wilson," Byrd said, "like Woody Allen, his plays do well artistically but not commercially."

And the reason for Byrd's commercial success? "It's a combination of an American classic written by an icon, and the cast," he said. Along with James Earl Jones, the show's cast includes Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni Rose (from the film "Dreamgirls").

Liz McCann, the lead producer for "Passing Strange," believes the appeal of "Cat" is its all-star cast. "It's really an all-star revival," she told "It's going to entice the same kind of people who love to see stars."

"Passing Strange," which is about a black man's journey toward self-discovery that takes him from South Central Los Angeles to Holland and Germany, has a different appeal, McCann said. "Is 'Passing Strange' a black play because it has an all-black cast?" McCann wondered aloud. "No, I have a universal play."

And it seems to be attracting a more universal audience, less than a quarter of which is black.

"The headache for this conversation is what do you mean by 'black?'" McCann said. "I find it a very elusive question. When we talk about race, we lose sight of that fact, that our culture grows and festers on other life experiences. All blacks aren't looking for their cultural identity in the same place. It's the same with the presidential race."

Pendelton believes a "Passing Strange," which has struggled to attract an audience, and an all-black "Cat" should be able to co-exist on Broadway. "It's about time this kind of story was told," she said about "Passing Strange." "We [black people] need to become interested in not only seeing stars."

Byrd, who has seen "Passing Strange" four times, said he would have cast Lenny Kravitz in the show to draw a bigger crowd. He believes theater owners are looking for that solid event.

"I don't know if it's primarily economic or about bringing cultural integrity to the masses." But, he added, "If 'Thurgood' or 'Passing Strange' loses money, we'll all catch hell. Once the theater owners start losing money, they become reluctant and throw everyone in the same pot."

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