Touring plays, tailored for blacks, are packing houses nationwide


PHILADELPHIA -- An elegantly dressed black crowd streame out of the Shubert Theater on a recent evening, talking excitedly and laughing uproariously. Among them were Valeri Henderson, 31, and her daughter Tanisha, 11, both of whom have seen a lot of plays in the last few months.

Earlier this year, Henderson, of Philadelphia, took her daughter to see "Beauty Shop," Shelly Garrett's comedy with an all-black cast about the outrageous doings in a black hair salon. Then they saw "Momma Don't," a black gospel musical about a churchwoman who falls into a life of crack and prostitution.

On this evening, they were part of the opening-night, foot-stomping audience for "Living Room," Garrett's all-black romantic comedy.

"We love these plays," said Henderson, who before "Beauty Shop" did not attend theater regularly. "They keep us laughing and we can relate to them."

With meager budgets, sometimes simplistic plots and outrageous characters, these plays are being performed across the country in theaters packed with people like the Hendersons rTC who rarely had a reason in the past to attend a professional stage play.

These national touring shows, such as "Mama I Want to Sing, Part II," have managed to find resounding national success by tailoring and marketing their shows to the black community.

The characters in these plays talk black-talk. Scenes are set in well-known gathering spots in the black community: the church, the juke joint, the barber shop, the funeral parlor. The characters are familiar to many black Americans -- the mighty black church preacher with a wayward daughter, the gossipy beauty shop owner, the women who begin every sentence with "Girrrrrl Friend."

Along the way these productions -- which rely heavily on advertisement on black radio stations -- fill theaters that would have otherwise been empty due to the decrease in national touring companies and in Broadway-bound plays trying out in various East Coast cities.

"I looked at these audiences for "Beauty Shop" and I just can't believe it," said Debbie Fleshman, who handled the Philadelphia publicity for both "Beauty Shop" and "Momma Don't." "There is a whole audience of people out there who were just starving for this kind of entertainment."

The gospel-play, tailored to black church goers who traditionally attended gospel concerts in their church halls, first broadened theater's appeal to black audiences.

"Mama I Want to Sing, Part II," like the original 1983 production, is a prime example of a successful gospel-play. "What we were able to do was to appeal to an audience that had not traditionally been invited to theater before," said Ken Wydro, who with Vy Higginsen produced and wrote "Mama I Want to Sing" and its sequel.

"We did grass-root marketing, went around to black churches and then touched base with the schools, sororities and professional business groups in the black community," Wydro said in a telephone interview from New York.

This eventually led to group sales that resulted in bus-loads of folks arriving in New York from Wilmington, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston and other East Coast cities.

"Mama I Want To Sing," the story of a preacher's daughter who wants to become a recording artist, is still playing off-off-off Broadway in New York. It is credited with moving black theater from its message days in the 1970s (best characterized by "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" and "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf") and beyond the all-black musical productions like "Purlie" and "Ain't Misbehavin'."

It also touched off a spree of gospel plays which took the church link one step further by hiring nationally known gospel recording artists such as Vanessa Bell Armstrong, who starred in the 1987 production of "Don't Get God Started."

But it is comedy, unheard of before Garrett, which is responsible the recent national phenomenon in black theater. Garrett, 44, a former actor, produced "Beauty Shop" in Los Angeles, where it ran in a 1,200-seat auditorium for two years before beginning a national tour last September.

At every stop -- Washington, Atlanta, Baltimore -- "Beauty Shop" has sold out, been held over or forced to return for repeat engagements.

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