Results tagged “urban theater” from Drama Queen
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.
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.