What Theaters Can Learn From The Roots Picnic
Spent all day yesterday baking in 10 hours of scorching 96 degree heat at The Roots Picnic here in Philly (Illadelph to Roots fans). For some, the Picnic was this summer's must-see music festival, with a bill featuring, of course, The Roots, and headlined by Gnarls Barkley, as well as newer acts like The Dap-Kings (Amy Winehouse's backup band) with Sharon Jones, Santogold, Deerhoof, The Cool Kids, and DJ Diplo, among others.
Extreme conditions are believed to trigger transcendence, and while at the concert, I had an epiphany. Before arriving, I expected one sort of crowd, and was surprised to find a completely different audience. Let me insert here that I based my assumptions upon many years of fairly segregated concertgoing. Diversity in live music, to my generation, was the inclusion of a token rapper like Ice-T on an early Lollapalooza tour. (However, he was included not as a rapper, but as "Body Count," his cringe-worthy attempt at a hardcore punk rock band.)
I assumed this crowd would split maybe 80-20 along racial lines, with, for this hip-hop heavy bill, 80% being African-American, and 20% white/other. Well, it wasn't. In fact, it was flipped in the opposite direction.
But white kids co-opting a black music scene is nothing new. So, while I was surprised, I wasn't shocked. What really set off my epiphany was that the co-opting of musical forms was now mutual. The Cool Kids, backed by DJ Jazzy Jeff, unabashedly expressed their Beastie Boys idolatry. Santogold (who scratched at the last minute, but was listed on the bill) mixes her M.I.A. galang with Missing Persons-style new wave. The Roots' guitarist indulged in a full-on old-school guitar solo (FYI, their new album, Rising Down, was heavily influenced by a damn near inaccessible William T. Vollman treatise). Gnarls Barkley's odd mix matches hip-hop with a groovy '60s Mellotron aesthetic and soul crooning (lest we forget, the silent half of Gnarls, Danger Mouse, made his name by mashing up Jay-Z's Black album with The Beatles' White Album to create The Grey Album). And for most of the groups onstage, with this interracial mix of influences came an interracial mix of band members. It's also important to note that no one's politics got watered down; they instead became part of the mix.
It's a generational shift that, judging by the crowd's demographics, is probably fairly superficial, but shows a cultural give-and-take that bodes well. As we perch on the cusp of a possible Obama presidency, I'm guessing that shift has the potential to go deep.
So what does this have to do with theater? Well, attention must be paid, in programming, in outreach, in funding. There's a whole new aesthetic growing out there that should be nurtured from every angle. The repertory canon ought to include August Wilson right alongside Arthur Miller, and often does. But a whole generation of kids who grew up used to interracial families and international adoptions, celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. day and reading Toni Morrison in English class, aren't seeing their experiences reflected in the larger culture. Theaters are, for the most part, still operating under segregationist assumptions, sometimes alternating a "black" play with a "white" play, but not seeking out work that fills the spaces in between, let alone ventures into "Asian," or "Latino" territory. It's up to producers to find the next Passing Strange, plays and musicals that take racial, cultural and artistic cross-pollination as a given and run with it.
Theater, with its ephemeral nature, might just be the medium to draw younger audiences away from their computers. You can't Netflix a play or find it on YouTube, at least not in the same way, which makes the old-fashioned theater, ironically, one of the few creative industries that doesn't have to suffer because of the internet. Build an exciting, relevant and un-self consciously inclusive ethos, and they will come.
Oh, and for the record, the concert was great.