Diversity takes the stage

The Baltimore Sun

The Color Purple, which affirmed that black-themed plays can draw huge black audiences to Broadway, will open at the Hippodrome Theatre next week with help from a city-backed campaign to attract a larger and more diverse crowd to Baltimore's stages.

The push comes as large theater companies across the country are reaching out to black audiences as never before. Mainstream productions are taking on black themes more often, crossing racial lines in casting, and enlisting public officials and local church leaders to help to get the word out.

Yesterday, Mayor Sheila Dixon and a group of clergy members held a news conference at City Hall to announce their "endorsement" of the production and unveil an unconventional marketing campaign for the musical, which begins a three-week run Tuesday at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

"It's a play that I believe reflects the fabric of the city of Baltimore," Dixon said of the musical based on Alice Walker's novel about a black woman's brutal upbringing in rural Tennessee. "We have a large African-American community. If this is successful, I'd like to work with other plays and do the same."

Rather than opt solely for traditional publicity such as newspaper reviews and advertisements, the tour's producers are targeting city schools and churches and offering discounts for city employees and church congregations.

"African-Americans do not make up a large percentage of your traditional Broadway audience," said Linda Stewart, the production's press and outreach director. "To make sure that we had African-Americans, that we had Asians and the traditional theatergoers, we had to go about it in unconventional means."

While it's rare, if not unheard of, for the mayor to announce a play's "arrival" and while some in the theater community privately questioned why this production - of all the black-themed and black-written plays that have appeared in the city - drew her endorsement, most said they appreciated her showing support for the arts.

Catering to African-American crowds is nothing new for some of the city's smaller theaters. When Irene Lewis became the artistic director for Center Stage more than 15 years ago, she was concerned with the lack of diversity in the audiences.

"I was looking at an audience that looked like me - old and white - and it was just deadly," she said.

Lewis wanted to tap into the city's large African-American community by showing works by a variety of diverse playwrights.

Today, one-third of Center Stage's programming is targeted at African-American audiences and the theater commissions African-American playwrights to produce new works. As a result, African-Americans hold 12 percent of the theater's subscription tickets and snap up single seats for shows throughout the year, she said.

"You can't live and work in a city that's 60 percent African-American and not reach out to that audience," said Vincent Lancisi, artistic director of the Everyman Theatre. "We've been strong proponents of non-traditional color-blind casting, and we are always looking for good stories that are either about or include African-Americans."

The Everyman is now showing Gem of the Ocean, by the black Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, and is scheduled to hold the world premiere of African-American playwright David Emerson Toney's The Soul Collector next year.

"It was like a breath of fresh air to see a mayor trumpeting a show," Lancisi said of Dixon's announcement yesterday. "Anything she can do to expose a broader array of people to quality theater, it's going to pay off. We need a cheerleader."

The Color Purple, despite its commercial success, drew some harsh reviews on Broadway. The New York Times dubbed it "a singing version of a Reader's Digest condensed book," while The Wall Street Journal called it "a comic-book version" of Alice Walker's "vastly overrated tale of oppression and hope in the Deep South."

But that didn't keep audiences - in particular, African-American audiences - from flocking to the theater, a reflection of their affection for Walker's 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and for the musical's main producer, Oprah Winfrey.

The play ran for more than two years and 910 performances on Broadway before closing this year - numbers that showed theater companies across the country the vast untapped potential in black audiences.

That is a far cry from the 1960s, when black attendance was low, black-themed plays were rare and black roles sparse on Broadway.

The first completely black mainstream musical on Broadway didn't arrive until the 1970s, with The Wiz, black producer Ken Harper's reinvention of The Wizard of Oz. It ran for 1,672 performances, followed by a successful national tour.

It was the lack of opportunities for blacks in theater - and the tendency to place black actors only in roles such as servants and lackeys - that led a small group to come together 55 years ago in Baltimore and form the Arena Players, one of the nation's oldest black theater companies.

"They were tired of playing subservient roles and wanted to do their own theater - and to educate our population and bring them into the theaters as audiences," said Robert Russell, who has been with the theater company since 1955 and is now one of its directors.

Russell said the black audience has been steadily growing - "and we do take great pride in that. ... We've helped build a great black theater audience."

In 2006-2007, nearly 7 percent of Broadway theatergoers were black, compared with about 2 percent eight years ago, according to the Broadway League, formerly known as the League of American Theaters and Producers. The league attributed the increase to such shows as The Color Purple, Chicago and The Lion King.

The average Broadway theatergoer, according to the league, is 41 and makes $98,900 a year.

Stella Benkler, the Hippodrome's executive director, acknowledged that only a handful of plays with multicultural appeal, such as The Lion King, have appeared at the theater. The Hippodrome's booking options are limited by the number of available off-Broadway plays, she said.

"Any time we have an opportunity to bring a show like this, we'll definitely jump on it," she said.

While black stories are still fairly rare on Broadway, producers are increasingly casting a wider net when selecting actors and actresses to star in theater productions.

Last month, a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on Broadway with an all-black cast. The Tennessee Williams play is one of a number of well-known American dramas, such as Come Back, Little Sheba, that have recently been restaged in New York with color-blind casting. Locally, Center Stage recently produced Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead with black actors in the title roles.

Waiting in line with her family outside Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, Deborah Beasley, 50, of Lynchburg, Va., was looking forward to seeing her first stage show. The outing to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a reunion with her niece and two of her sisters - and a memorial to their mother.

Beasley's sister, Suzan Jackson, 53, of New York, just wishes their mother would have had a chance to see such luminaries as James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad play the parts of Big Daddy and Big Mama.

Jackson said that remaking a classic with an all-black cast "shows that we're being accepted. When these characters were written, they didn't have white faces or black faces. It adds an extra dimension to the show."

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com sam.sessa@baltsun.com

Sun theater critic Mary Carole McCauley contributed to this article.

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