On the Racial Imbalance of the Broadway Audience

In her Metropolitan Room show, Fishbeyn performed songs ranging from Human League to Kander and Ebb. Photo: Luba XXXX.

I applaud New York Times reporter Patrick Healy for looking at the racial imbalance of the Broadway audience and asking what, in terms of marketing and audience development, can be done about it.

Numerically, at least, Healy had his work cut out for him: much of the article discusses Memphis — which won the Tony for Best Musical and has diligently marketed itself to diverse audiences — because it’s not like there was a flood of new Broadway product during the season just ended that dealt with the nonwhite experience.

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Healy cites Fela!, the Denzel Washington/Viola Davis-starring revival of Fences and David Mamet’s Race. (I might have also looked at why the revival of the musical Ragtime didn’t succeed and why Superior Donuts also fits into this category.)

The thing is, out of 39 Broadway productions, three shows — or five, or six — doesn’t bespeak a glittering rainbow in the Broadway hue.

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There are two questions we must continually ask:

  • How will Broadway attract and retain racially diverse audiences?
  • How will Broadway present and market racially diverse productions?

Healy’s piece clearly straddles both categories to some extent. He demonstrates that while there are ideas out there aplenty, there isn’t as much product as there ought to be — if Broadway audience diversity really is a shared goal.

As The Clyde Fitch Report noted last December — pivoting off of a different, much more sarcastic article by Healy — the Great White Way during the 2008-09 season was a particularly apt name:

2.4 percent of Broadway theatergoers were African-American last season, “down from 6.3 percent in the 2007-08 Broadway season and 6.7 percent in 2006-07.”

Meanwhile, As E.R. Shipp noted in a piece in The Root (hat tip to Mr. Cott for including both stories his daily eblast),

In the 2008-2009 season, when shows included In the Heights, Rent, Thurgood and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and the all-black version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, less than 3 percent of 12.15 million tickets sold were to black Broadway theatergoers. In recent years, when the lineup included the Oprah Winfrey-produced The Color Purple and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — starring James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose and directed by Debbie Allen — black turnout was double that.

Shipp, of course, does not suggest that when African Americans represent six percent of the Broadway audience, a round of cheers ought to go up. All these numbers are deeply troublesome.

And then there is the question of what numbers would give us hope. Indeed, there some people would argue that true diversity comes not when you’ve successfully filled certain buckets to specific points, but rather when the “numbers game” (as one of Shipp’s sources put it) finally ends. Diversity arrives when we aren’t discussing diversity anymore — when, say, average income or the number of repeat visits to the theater is the metric we value most.

There is also another story brewing here if someone wants to take it on.

Shipp quotes Donna Walker-Kuhne, who talks about what makes African Americans go to Broadway:

When they hear that Denzel Washington is on Broadway, she says, ‘The question is, ‘Can I get a ticket?’

Seems astute (and obvious), right?

But now we have Give the Tonys Back to Broadway, a group started by someone I already thought was over-the-title, on-the-marquee star, Hunter Foster. The group’s purpose is to argue, it seems, that the wattage of a Washington hurts Broadway — or at least hurts the Tonys, turning it into an unmerited Hollywood parade.

I get their argument. But insofar as audience diversity is concerned, what are we really saying here?

  • We need stars like Denzel Washington to come to Broadway to help diversify audiences.
  • We don’t need stars like Denzel Washington to come to Broadway to help diversify audiences.

Can it be both? If not, which is it? Shouldn’t Walker-Kuhne and Foster be in some kind of conversation together?

I think Foster, if he really thinks Broadway and the Tonys are damaged by the likes of Washington coming to the Great White Way or getting Tony-nominated or winning, should read Shipp’s quotes from choreographer Ken Roberson:

It comes down to the producers simply making a decision to produce shows that consist of cast members and/or themes that will attract these audiences…

I cannot honestly say that I feel that the average Broadway producer will go out of his or her way to attract a diverse audience unless he or she has ‘gone out of the way’ to put these very diverse people on the stage…

‘A lot of the would-be audience members who are on the margins will not make an effort to attend a Broadway production unless they feel that in some way they were being asked to ‘come on down’ by way of their respective cultural media outlets.

I say let’s keep the conversation going.

CATEGORIES: Politics, Rants, Theater

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