The Playgoer: Too Black for Broadway?

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Too Black for Broadway?

"Passing Strange" has no celebrities, nor is writer-composer-star Stew convinced it will fly with the same demo flocking to "Color Purple." " 'Passing Strange' is like the black, gay, rock 'n' roll cousin of that kind of play," he says.

Yes, despite all this, Passing Strange--a hit downtown at the Public last year--is coming to Broadway. I'm personally glad, since I missed it before. So as long as Broadway doesn't make it unaffordable, I look forward to seeing it.

But notice how the contrast between Stew's words and those of his producer, Liz McCann: "I want people to see a new American musical, because 'Passing Strange' is quintessentially an American story."

Not that all good stories don't speak to all people. But is it really too much to ask of theatre audiences to see a play about someone different from them?

All this, by the way, is by way of Mark Blankenship's interesting piece in Variety today pointing out the unusual non-white presence on Broadway, whether in projects coming out of non-white communities (Passing Strange, In the Heights) or in prominent "color-blind casting" choices, like the all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or S. Epatha Merkerson's turn in Come Back Little Sheba. (A triumphant one, I hear.)

Personally, I think this has less to do with any "enlightened" trend among producers and audiences than with a long overdue acknowledgement that some of our best and most popular stage performers are African American and need some good roles to play! If they can be found in drama written by African Americans all the better. But meanwhile, why not Tennesee Williams, William Inge, and (in the case of Morgan Freeman's Country Girl) Clifford Odets. Merkerson and James Earl Jones (playing Big Daddy in Cat) are deservedly beloved figures from film and tv, and it only makes sense mass audiences want to see them. In anything--but if in good plays, all the better.

A sobering thought though on the possibilities for more diverse audiences, though, comes from Heights producer Jeffrey Seller. Faced with the prospect of filling a more or less 1,000-seat house, you can imagine his predicament.
"The Latino community will find 'In the Heights,' " Seller says, "but they will never be more than 25% of our audience. If this show is going to work, it has to reach everyone."

At Broadway prices, attracting even 250 non-white ticket buyers a night--eight times a week--will indeed be a challenge.


Anonymous said...

Since you didn't see it, it's probably hard for you to know, but Stew and Liz McCann are BOTH right. Passing Strange is a piece about (in part) black american identity-what does it mean to be authentically black, and how does that change as the context flips, from middle class la to coffee house Amsterdam to art squat Berlin. And seeing the all-black cast play not race-neutral, but actually go from playing black folk in LA to the white dutch and germans plays with race in provocative, and funny, but non stereotypical ways. And it's a story of black bohemianism that isn't often seen in mainstream culture.

But it's also a classic coming of age story about an artist coming of age, trying to find himself by going off the Europe after high school. About mothers losing their grips on their sons. About work pushing away love. So totally universal, even as it indeed tells a very specific archetypal story of a black artist in europe.
And the songs, the writing, the direction and the ensemble's performances are all pretty brilliant.

Anonymous said...

While in San Francisco, I lucked upon Passing Strange in development (?) at the Berkeley Rep Theater. Stew's writing and narration is universal: and whether the scene was funny or emotionally fragile, his words were streaming prose or rhythmic like beat poetry (Allen Ginsberg would love this Passing Strange, but then, so would Shakespeare). Narrator Stew kept reminding me of a portly, mature version of Prince - his beautiful songs (co-written with LA musician Heidi Rodewald) were lushly melodic, raw, rocking, funky and his ballads simply elegant. This is not an R&B style/Dream Girls musical nor is it Hedwig, but I felt the raw rock/punk energy in the tunes. I wrongfully judged the white mature SF audience - they gave up a roaring ovation - they absolutely loved the show and particularly Stew. The cast and band is perfect, but the host - Stew - is an incredible power on stage and a mind blowing songwriter and lyricist. I wouldn't be surprised if I return to see this show multiple times this year.

Playgoer said...

I understand both these comments, but what I was trying to say is a challenge to the very *idea* of a play only being likeable if it is "universal."

And I worry about the marketing trope of "universality" (which, let's face it, is often invoked more out of commerical panic than genuine uplifting sentiments) effectively erasing all of our ethnic, racial, and class differences.

I ask again, (regardless of the case of Passing Strange, which indeed I have not seen) is it really that impossible to appreciate a piece of theatre without some kind of overt appeal to "universality"? Is it not possible to find someone else's story compelling without any clear way into it for you personally?