Can Madea Save Minority Theater?
Last week in Manhattan, an organization founded by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, The Coalition of Theaters of Color, called a town meeting to discuss "the issue of sustainability" in small New York state African-American and Latino nonprofit theaters. An article in Backstage highlighted the meeting's focus on media and grantwriters' biases against these companies, and it brought me back to an issue that keeps popping up--why does urban-gospel-chitlin circuit-call-it-what-you-will-theater do so well?
Those for-profit touring companies helmed by Tyler Perry, Je'Caryous Johnson (I wrote this one) and David E. Talbert, among others, develop their own shows from scratch, sell out houses while advertising largely outside major media outlets, without reviews, and attract marquee names. Sure there are quality issues, and for-profits leave little room for experimentation, but on the flipside, if you're successful enough, you can ultimately do all the experimenting you'd like--or start your own nonprofit, for that matter.
On Broadway, The Color Purple has turned a gorgeous profit for its creators, In the Heights is a Tony bonanza, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with its African-American cast, flourished despite mixed reviews. As a reviewer, I've already noticed a recent shift in typically white non-profit houses toward more diverse programming, and can't help but attribute this to their notice of Broadway's multi-culti success stories. Here in Philly, the Arden's production of August Wlson's The Piano Lesson was extended even though Delaware Theatre Company (just a half-hour outside the city) was set to open the same play the following week.
So why can't minority-run non-profits catch the same kind of fire?
Could it be that the nonprofit model just doesn't serve people of color in the same way? If traditionally white channels aren't working, why keep using them? I participated in a roundtable discussion at USC in February where the subject came up, and used the example of the Jews' exclusion from banking and media. Once we stopped banging on their doors and built our own houses, we managed to do okay for ourselves. It's less an issue of "separate but equal" than "money talks." There's certainly a precedent in the African American community: look no farther than Madame C.J. Walker, who took her money and opened a theater that still operates today with a mandate to serve Indianapolis' African American community.
The Coalition would do well to look to the urban circuit's theater entrepreneurs for assistance with marketing and funding. There's may be an issue of snobbery on the part of non-profits toward what is viewed as a lowbrow entertainment, but guess what? Tyler Perry, who used to live in his car, isn't complaining about funding or bad reviews--which at this point, he receives almost as a matter of courtesy.
I'm not suggesting that minority theaters ought to give up the fight against funding inequity and media biases. Obviously, it's a real, frustrating and intolerable situation. But I am suggesting that if things have gotten so bad that the issues the coalition is addressing aren't about programming or education, but about the continuation of their very existence, well, maybe it's time to look elsewhere for answers.