The Ink Is Black, The Stage Is White

My most recent review, Delaware Theatre Company's Master Harold... And the Boys, got me thinking. It seems like there's a burst of African-American issues-related shows in Philly this season--Driving Miss Daisy, Gee's Bend (which, if anyone cares, I thought had a really clunky script but some excellent acting by Kala Moses Baxter and one of my new favorites on the scene, Kes Khemnu), Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, Resurrection, Day of the Picnic--just about every major theater has one show in its season with this theme.*

I suppose part of the reason for the change is that everyone's capitalizing on the election, but really, it started with a recent thrust of nontraditional casting before Obama became the clear presidential candidate and has just sort of snowballed. And while this mass shift in programming focus is certainly long overdue and welcome, well, it begs the real question: why can't Philadelphia, a city whose population is 45% African American, support a dedicated professional African American theater? Since Walter Dallas' departure and Freedom Repertory Theatre's demise (and that's a whole 'nother long story) no one has stepped in to fill the void, and I'm going to guess it's not because Philadelphians are okay with leaving the issue of inclusion to the whims of the city's various white artistic directors, or catching the random touring urban theater production. 

Mind you, I'm not knocking the efforts at diversity being made by any of these other companies. I think it's great for the city and even better for expanding everyone's audience base. But honestly, what is going on here, and why? 

*By the way Philly folks, I'm omitting InterAct from inclusion and discussion on this post, as their commitment to programming diversity has been part of their mission since the company's inception.

October 23, 2008 10:51 AM | | Comments (5)


I'm glad that the diversity quotient of theater in the Philly area is being upped this season, especially because the race conversation has become much more open since the election.

I do want to mention, though, that many of us picked our seasons well before we knew Obama was the front runner on the Democratic ticket. When the Lantern selected "Sizwe Bansi" for our 08-09 Season, it was because we loved the play and made a commitment to presenting Fugard's work, starting with "Master Harold" in our 06-07 season. (Also, in 04-05, we produced "Death and the King's Horseman" by Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who visited the Lantern on a trip to the states.)

This may just be more evidence that the arts community has its finger on the pulse of society. Only when looking at colleague's seasons in recent months, did I realize who had programming dealing with African or African-American themes, stories, or characters. Of course as smart marketers some of us have teamed together to make use of this coincidence, but our Artistic teams selected these shows way back last winter, when the chance of Hope seemed small.

Leigh Goldenberg
Lantern Theater Company

IBattle Royal is very lovely adaptation. Information of this topic is very lovely.

While I can't provide any figures for the mainstream theaters who have made a conscious effort to include African American themes among their programming, I do know this much: when those touring urban/gospel/minority theater shows swing through the city, they are packed to the balconies with entirely African American audiences (and yes, I've been the sole white face in the crowd, so I can verify that firsthand), and they are not cheap.

Freedom Rep lasted for a long time and scored some really wonderful successes, but since they've been gone, it's kind of shocking to me that no one--not even the small, young theater companies, and there are a ton of those lately--have stepped in to even try to fill that hole.

Thanks for the comment.

In regards to your statement of Philly supporting an African-American theatre because of their demographics - do the African Americans there support the mainstream theatres in existence there? What about their income - does the average African-American family make an income that supports that kind of disposable income.
Mind you, I'm not from Philly. Far from it - that would probably me a culture shock for me. Just some providing some thoughts to answer the question of "what is going on here, and why."

There's a good adaptation of "Battle Royal" on youtube, I know it's not technically theatre, but it's gotta be one of the best opening chapters of a book,

And, yes, the writer's African American....

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