The Playgoer: Memo to Theatre Media: Obama didn't invent African American Theatre

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Memo to Theatre Media: Obama didn't invent African American Theatre

Here's a lede from a recent Variety article:

There's an ironically presented black minstrel show at the Vineyard Theater. There's a darkly comic wrestling match with retro racial stereotypes at the Public Theater. At Playwrights Horizons, white characters and black characters try to talk about race, and mostly fail.
See a pattern?
You know what? No!  I don't!

Of course the "pattern" allegedly is: guess what, we have a black president now!

To which I respond, guess what, there were indeed plays about black people before 2008!  There were even plays BY black authors before Barack Obama was born.

Seems to me that even if the case is that such work is now getting done more in NYC, that's pretty specious, too.  I don't see any stats in this piece, but I bet back in the 70s, for instance, there were seasons of even more African American work on Broadway let alone on the fringe.

As if the argument isn't empty enough, having as your only sources the three white AD's of the theatres you're talking--who, funny, seem to totally agree with you that they are civil rights trailblazers--doesn't help.

7 comments:

Mr. Cantrell Roberson said...

1. People have always written about race. It is the Artistic Director who is now making the decision to pay attention. Perhaps in their minds, they imagine that b/c Obama is in office, more people are willing to buy tix for a "race" play?

2. Stop me if I'm wrong, but this is not the first play about Scottsboro, is it? I remember reading a much older version, perhaps by Hughes?

3. What does it say that this "new breed" of race play is about really old shit? Minstrel shows? The Scottsboro trial? Do we really move this slow in American drama?
4. Yes, Playgoer, the 1970s were flush with major productions of black theatre, including an explosion of gospel themed plays (60s into early 80s). Certainly many more than are being offered today on our big stages.

Monty said...

For the record, there is also Suzan Lori-Parks' new play at The Public that I'm really excited about. Also, Clybourne Park's second act is hardly about "old shit". Not to mention two of the most exciting new playwrights on the scene are Lynn Nottage, Lydia Diamond, and Tarell Alvin McCraney. So... although new black plays may not be produced every other production on or off Broadway, neither are new plays...in general. We're certainly produced more often than Asian playwrights, for example. Careful: It's a lot easier to be negative about what's going on in Black theatre than be positive.

That all said, I loved this blogpost.

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins said...

I would point readers to my survey of the 2007-2008 New York season in BEST PLAYS THEATER YEARBOOK 2007-2008--a book in which the Playgoer himself has an essay.

In contextualizing that season--which saw S. Epatha Merkerson and Morgan Freeman in crossracial or "colorblind" productions of American plays from the "Golden Era," an African-American version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, a rock musical with an African American as the central figure and Laurence Fishburne as Thurgood Marshall (and those were just Broadway productions)--I remind readers of the proliferation of African-American theater in the 1970s.

For the record, that season ended on May 31, 2008, when Hillary Clinton still had an admittedly slim chance of becoming the Democratic candidate for President.

cgeye said...

This is a forward-projecting article: Audience, please show up for these plays where (mostly) white writers talk about black people. No scary all-black productions where black people don't talk about white people. See? it's safe to go.

Sheesh.... they're trying to profit from a trend, and get credit when they thought plays about black people were considered more risky.

Thomas Garvey said...

But is the Variety article really about "plays about black people," as you claim? It seems to me it's more about a group of plays with a similar political stance toward race. Which isn't quite the same thing.

cgeye said...

The question, I guess, is does dialogue concerning race, at this theatrical moment, devolved to plays about black people?

"Race" usually equals "The Negro Problem". If there are plays being done on Broadway that go beyond that, I'd like to know about them.

cgeye said...

"devolve" -- sorry.