NEW YORK -- At a recent performance of the all-black Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Ramona Scott, 52, ran into a couple she'd worked for as a baby sitter almost 40 years ago. She saw another couple who had been friends of hers during the 1970s. Cat, which will be at the Broadhurst Theatre through June 15, was where everybody seemed to be.
"A lot of my friends and family don't go out to plays," said Scott, a frequent theatergoer herself. "But when they hear of one that has a large black audience, they want to go and see it."
Cat, which stars James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose, has a large audience, all right. By last month, it had sold nearly $700,000 in tickets. Stephen C. Byrd, the rookie producer of Cat, estimates the audience to be between 70 percent and 80 percent black.
Byrd now has plans for a multiracial version of A Streetcar Named Desire; a stage adaptation of James Baldwin's 1956 novel, Giovanni's Room; and a new production of Death of a Salesman. He has even had informal talks with Je'Caryous Johnson, a young playwright who works on the increasingly sophisticated urban-play circuit about bringing Johnson's original work to Broadway.
The agenda is ambitious considering that just five years ago there were questions about whether black audiences would come to a Broadway show in significant numbers. But now, said Marcia Pendleton, the founder of Walk Tall Girl Productions, a marketing and group-sales company that reaches out to nontraditional theatergoers, "we have hard facts that this is a viable audience that can sustain a production."
The first life of this Cat goes back to the middle 1990s, when, after years as an investment banker, Byrd wanted to do something different. He was frustrated by Hollywood and decided to try the stage, heading to Coliseum Books on West 57th Street to buy a stack of books on how to be a Broadway producer.
There was little evidence then that an all-black play would have much success. Even the 1987 production of Fences, the only August Wilson play that was a box-office hit, had trouble drawing a black crowd.
"There was no black audience," Carole Shorenstein Hays, the producer of Fences, said. "They didn't feel like they had a place on Broadway."
Change came slowly. In 2002, Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog was a commercial success with a diverse audience. The breakthrough occurred four years ago, with the revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
"People said to me, 'If you can get 20 percent of the audience to be black, that will be fantastic,'" said David Binder, the lead producer of Raisin. "Everyone thought you couldn't do an African-American play on Broadway, that an African-American audience wouldn't support you. I had a very hard time getting the show up, in terms of getting money, in terms of co-producers, in terms of everything."
Some African-American groups that went to Topdog, Raisin and the 2005 production of Julius Caesar, Pendleton said, had not seen much Broadway. While they may have developed a Broadway-going habit, it is not, so far, a habit that stretches beyond shows with mostly black actors.
"Doesn't happen much," Pendleton said. "Anybody that is a hard-core theatergoer will go to see anything, but initially people just want to see themselves."