The Playgoer: Barack Obama's Come and Gone

Custom Search

Monday, June 01, 2009

Barack Obama's Come and Gone

No, autograph hounds, it's not Julia Roberts, ok?
Presidential limo pulls into the Belasco, West 44th St.
(photo: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Not since Bill Clinton booked the entire house of The Iceman Cometh for a Democratic fundraiser (and quite a fundraising play that is!), has a sitting president gone on the record attending an evening of serious theatre.

(Okay, I realize that just means "not since the Bush administration." But still, probably rare among all modern presidents.)

(And, yes, I know the obvious joke would be "Not since Lincoln..." But that would be bad taste. Too soon.)

Of course the cheerful and downright cute sight of the young president and his wife actually enjoying an evening to themselves at a New York restaurant and an acclaimed American drama was enough to immediately send the GOP into fax-attack heaven:
The Republican National Committee slammed the outing in an "RNC Research Piece": "As President Obama prepares to wing into Manhattan’s theater district on Air Force One to take in a Broadway show, GM is preparing to file bankruptcy and families across America continue to struggle to pay their bills. ... Have a great Saturday evening – even if you’re not jetting off somewhere at taxpayer expense. ... PUTTING ON A SHOW: Obamas Wing Into The City For An Evening Out While Another Iconic American Company Prepares For Bankruptcy."

The RNC's Gail Gitcho added: "If President Obama wants to go to the theater, isn’t the Presidential box at the Kennedy Center good enough?”

Now do you think a meal at an organic restaurant and a three-hour poetic African-American historical drama is most Americans' idea of some gallivanting "night on the town"? (as the RNC press release went on to say)

Just thank god, for their sake, they didn't call "Joe Turner" a musical.

Meanwhile, I expect the Broadway League will capitalize to the max on the now-famous executive order: "I am taking my wife to New York City because I promised her during the campaign that I would take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished." Guess you couldn't hope for a better endorsement than that. (Take that, "I'm going to Disneyworld"!)

However, while Michelle's dreams may have been framed strictly by commercial theatre logo, consider again what they actually ended up seeing. Not 9 to 5, not Shrek, not Jersey Boys (all of which, by the way, had the extra appeal of satisfying key political demographics and supporters). But Joe Turner's freakin' Come and Gone! One of the least commercially successful plays by an adamant activist black American writer often accused (not unjustifiably) of seperatism and black nationalism. (Sorry, I realize I'm only giving talk radio loudmouths more fodder by pointing that out. But the funny thing is how much more the rightist "culture warriors" would attack Obama's taste here...if they actually understood the references.)

It takes Frank Rizzo of the Hartford Courant(!) to point out another salient point--that in many ways the production isn't even "Broadway" at all:

While we are glad that this President recognizes the value of theater -- and challenging theater at that -- I hope he is also aware that the play is a product not of the commercial theater but of the not-for-profit system, supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. The playwright and the work was first nurtured at the O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford. The play received its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre in the mid-'80s, directed by Lloyd Richards, who was a mentor to Wilson as director of the National Playwrights Conference. The Rep production starred Charles S. Dutton, who was in the recent production of "Death of a Salesman" at the Rep.The Broadway revival of "Joe Turner" was directed by Bartlett Sher, who was formerly associate director of Hartford Stage and spent his recent career as artistic director of the Intiman Theater in Seattle. The cast of the production served most of their careers in the not-for-profit theaters.

But forget the pedigree. Even Rizzo fails to mention the more obvious fact that this Joe Turner is a nonprofit production itself! By way of Lincoln Center Theatre.

So, as long as the story is reported accurately, this is potentially a nice presidential imprimatur for nonprofit (and nonmusical) theatre. Not to mention a boost in box office for the hitherto sluggish business at the Belasco:

Miriam Childs, 38, visiting from New Orleans, said the Obamas' theater choice inspired her to buy tickets to the August Wilson show. "Their time is about the most precious time in the world, so if they made time to see it, it must be worth it," she said.

She ordered "Joe Turner" tickets at 6a.m. to make sure she and her husband didn't miss out. "We figured there would be a lot of spur-of-the-moment decisions to come see the play," she said. "[We said,] 'Why don't we get a jump on it and get [tickets] now, because there won't be any later.'"

There were just a few balcony seats remaining for Sunday's matinee. The line for tickets stretched out the door an hour before the 3 p.m. performance. A week ago, an average of just 65% of seats at the show were filled, according to

Other fun facts: Apparently Meryl Streep, coincidentally, was also in the audience, but no one noticed. And even though "POTUS & FLOTUS" pulled up right at 7:55, stage manager had to hold curtain till 8:45 for added security and the massive (surprise!) ovation that greeted them.

I've read nothing yet of his response to the show or whether he went backstage. Did I miss that? Obviously there's a poignant angle to be taken here: what our first African American president has to say about a work that so movingly depicts the black experience. (Especially one set in an industrial Pittsburgh slum not unlike his former hoods in Chicago.)

And here it is, evidence that we have a president not ashamed to take a seat at an honest to god--and pretty damn good--play:


Esther said...

The thing that struck me about the picture is, they seem to be the only black people in view - and it's a play about African-American culture and history, by an African-American playwright. Maybe it's not representative of the whole audience. I hope not, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Read in one of the dailies that security said they couldn't go backstage (excuse?) but they sent a note of congratulations to the cast.

Anonymous said...

if they started 45 minutes late then the bows must have ended around midnight. nice.

Anonymous said...

Coulda been worse.

Coulda been RADIO GOLF.

David Cote said...

Forgive me the self-promotion, but the conversation continues here:

Unknown said...

I can't help but think that the RNC is partly upset because they can't help but view the theatre through their petty, anti-liberal lens. Perhaps the RNC could use a history lesson. So many of our national icons, those whom the RNC is more likely to hold up as more than mortal, were avid playgoers. Not only was Lincoln shot at the theatre, but prior to that night, he actually saw all three Booth brothers perform as part of a fundraiser. Before him, Washington, one of the GOP's favorite gods, defied federal prohibitions against performance by hosting army camp productions of Cato. In addition, the general's own memorial service was produced as a theatrical event. Oh, and wasn't Regan an actor?

Playgoer said...

Postscript: NYT confirms on June 9 that, "Weekly grosses for Joe Turner increased by $93,000, or more than 30 percent, right after the Obamas’ visit."

Unfortunately, despite that and despite a Tony for actor Roger Robinson, show is not able to extend and will close as scheduled on June 14.