For the first time in the memory of most black theater observers, black people experienced theatergoers and first timers alike find themselves with a choice among Broadway shows that offer them something to identify with. An apparent upsurge of black artistic participation in the commercial theater has brought a new spirit and a new audience to Broadway, and the essence of both is black.
If there is a lesson in the theater phenomenon, it has apparently not been noted of learned in two other performing arts, the ballet and classical music. No Major orchestra or ballet company, by measurable indications, appears to be rushing to engage black performers as permanent members. And some fear that the Broadway phenomenon may be only temporary.
On a given theater night in the current season, the commercial theater audience, black and white, has had the choice of seeing, for example, black established stars like James Earl Jones and Cleavon Little: a musical based on the Wizard of Oz fantasy adapted into a black cultural idiom; an exploration of the psychic torment of a black creative artist, and a pair of dramas dealing with the life of blacks in South Africa.
All these shows, and nearly a dozen others from the season, use black artistic talent or offer a glimpse of black life, contributing to a sense of greater black “presence” in the commercial theater. Broadway has had earlier periods notably in the nineteen-twenties and nineteen -forties when it has seen a vogue for “black” shows. But today’s offering is broader, and it has emerged coexistent with an independent “black theater movement,” created by blacks for blacks, that has been growing in size and strength since the civil rights thrust of the nineteen sixties. Why it has emerged now is an open question, but many believe it is rooted in a desire of Broadway to capitalize on a public appetite for black related themes that was whetted by Hollywood a few years ago and more recently spread to a mass audience by popular television series such as “The Jeffersons” and Good Times.” Passers-by near West 44th Street on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon are greeted by the sight of predominantly black crowds, and particularly families with young children, pouring out of a matinee performance of “The Wiz.” It is an audience that the white theater establishment has for years been saying did not exist.
That such a scene regularly materializes at the Majestic Theater, and to a somewhat lesser degree at the other midtown theaters presenting black influenced productions, is due, most observers say, almost wholly to word of mouth within the black community that stretches from city to city.
Bus tours of blacks from nearby cities are becoming more and more frequent, and a two-year-old Harlem-based organization called Audelco (for Audience Development Committee) has been organizing a growing number of theater parties for commercial and noncommercial productions. Its regular clients include groups ranging from garment industry workers to Harlem Hospital employees to the Brooklyn Links, a prominent women’s social club.
A black Washington businessman, Mitch Johnson, and his wife, Yvonne, were recently among visitors to the city who fitted an evening at the theater into a business – weekend schedule. They chose “The Wiz,” a black adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz,” after hearing about it from a Washington friend. “We were unable to get tickets the normal way and had to pay about 20 to 25 percent more at the hotel, but it was well worth it,” said Mr. Johnson, a former offensive tackle for the Washington Redskins. The show, converted from its original form by a black producer, Ken Harper, with direction by a black choreographer. Geoffrey Holder, received poor critical reviews but was kept alive by black patrons until it received seven Antoinette Perry Awards, including best musical.
The willingness of Mr. Johnson to deliver upward of $30 into box office for an evening’s entertainment is exactly what many theater professionals say has motivated Broadway’s new venture into blackness. “If a show has commercial potential, they’ll bring people from the moon to do it,” said Douglas Turner Ward, artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company, which is generally regarded as the nation’s leading institutional black theater. Its productions include “The River Niger,” which moved to Broadway for an eight-month run two years ago, and “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.” What black professionals working in the theater make clear, however, is that, in their view, the shows do not all represent “black theater,” which they define as the illumination of the black experience written and shaped by blacks.
Mr. Ward is one of a number who view the growing black artistic presence on Broadway as a result of a more receptive “climate” created by the efforts over the last 10 years of institutional theaters like his own in the Black Theater Movement. “We have kept established black theater or black performance before the people, and not just when there is a rising fad for it,” he said. The Black Theater Movement, a philosophy of theater dedicated to the portrayal of black life through the works of black playwrights, encompasses some two dozen professional and community theaters in New York alone, including the Negro Ensemble Company and an umbrella organization called the Black Theater Alliance. Forged in the heat of the civil rights struggle, the movement nationally includes such groups as Robert Hook’s D.C. Black Repertory, the Free Southern Theater of New Orleans and the Inner City Repertory of Los Angeles. Many credit the “hook” that brought black audiences in sizable numbers from the noncommercial theater to Broadway to Melvin Van Peebles’s production of two shows, “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” and “Don’t Play Us Cheap,” in the same season, 1971-72. In the process, Mr. Van Pebbles, as producer, author, songwriter and star, worked hard at publicizing the shows in the black community. The results of that effort have not been ignored. Several weeks into its run, “All Over Town,” a Murray Schisgal comedy written for Cleavon Little which is not about blacks but about the eccentricities of the upper middle class household of a white Manhattan psychiatrist began running commercial spots on a black oriented FM radio station. The spots had Mr. Little appealing to listeners to see the show because, “I’m the main man.” At the least, observers agree, the Broadway shows are providing more employment for black actors though there are many who say the opportunities have not expanded similarly for directors or producers and even that is an improvement over the more static situation in some other performing arts. How much more employment is not known. Actors Equity stopped maintaining racial data on employment after a push to integrate Broadway casts in the late nineteen sixties. And the job data collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are categorized too generally to distinguish performing jobs from other occupations in the industry. But whatever the magnitude of the gains made in theater, blacks aspiring to careers in classical music and the ballet can only look on with envy. Few major performing companies have more than one black participant, although he may be of the caliber of a James de Priest, who last December became the first principal guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Six years ago, for example, when the New York City Commission on Human Rights began an investigation at the New York Philharmonic, that orchestra had only one black member. It still has only one. An additional factor operates in both these fields that does not exist in theater: youngsters who are to succeed as classical dancers or as instrumentalists, conductors or concert artists must, with rare exceptions, set their direction and begin training by age 9 or 10. Preparation requires time and money most blacks do not have. But most important many ask, what real motivation exists for them or their parents when, with a glance at the local symphony or ballet company, the visible models of success are so few?
In fact, according to Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theater of Harlem to give black youngsters the chance to study classical ballet, the pool of black dancers qualified for the professional ballet companies remains small.
“When there is nothing for people to identify with, there is nothing to go into,” he said. “Many blacks were encouraged to go into modern or ethnic dance because you look at the classical companies and you see there’s no place for you.” Although he spent 20 years with the New York City Ballet, he believes he got there only through extraordinary perseverance. “They told me because I was black, I had to be better than everybody else. So that’s how I got in,” he says simply. In the nation’s symphony orchestras, Henry Lewis is the only black person in a top job, as conductor of Newark’s New Jersey State Symphony. “The symphony is the last bastion of discrimination, and it’s the hardest,” according to Dick Campbell, executive director of the Symphony of the New World, a 100-member integrated symphony in New York that was formed to provide exposure for minority instrumentalists. With the cooperation of the National Urban League, the New World Symphony conducted a six month survey last year of black musicians in 56 symphonies across the country. Of the nearly 5,000 musicians playing regularly in those orchestras, only 70 were black, Mr. Campbell said. And among the “big Five” symphonies the Chicago, the Boston, the Philadelphia and the New York Philharmonic only six out of 528 musicians were black, according to the survey. The Chicago, with 110 musicians, had none.
Mr. Campbell and others feel that the symphonies, most of which face a major deficit at the end of each year, are missing an opportunity to tap a new audience among black people by perpetuating an all white image. “Given the opportunity of exposure, black people will support you because black people want to participate in the city.” he said.” “Imagine a city like Atlanta, with a black Mayor, and only one black person in the symphony. If it had 10 or 12, you couldn’t keep them away.” Still, even in the area where there has been the most success, there is divided opinion among black theater professionals over whether this phenomenon is a passing fancy or the beginning of a new movement that will place more artistic control in black hands, through the emergence of more black directors and producers, and eventually lead to the development of a resource of black productions.
One of those who is not optimistic is Lindsay Patterson, editor of the “Anthology of the American Negro in the Theater” and a frequent drama critic. “I’ve seen that black things just don’t last,” he said, “For example, in the movies, you thought that things were going to build, that black artists, directors and artistic talent generally would get a chance to develop. But now you don’t ever hear of any black productions of substance that are going to come out. The same thing is going to happen in the theater.” “In the theater particularly, you have fads and this is one,” he said. A number of black directors complain that, while white directors are called by producers to direct plays on black themes, black directors are not being asked to work on white shows. “There are lots of white directors who are in always called to do black shows and they feel they are in a position to interpret us,” said Vinnetta Carroll, artistic director of the Urban Arts Corporation. “But we are in a much better position to interpret them, because we’ve been in so many areas where we had to be working in their homes and having to observe their life,” she said.
Woodie King, a producer who is the force behind the New Federal Theater presenting seven plays a year out of the Henry Street Settlement, said: “The only thing that would mean anything in the commercial theater would be when you see five or six black people producing shows. Now there’s only me, the Negro Ensemble Company, and Ken Harper of “The Wiz.” Mr. King said he sees now the beginning of the development of a pool of black people able and willing to finance a show in the less costly Off Broadway arenas, among professional persons such as social workers, teachers or artists. The director Shauneille Perry, lately of “The Prodigal Sister,” sees a thrust of activity not only forward, but back well, reaching well beyond the Sturm und Drang days of black theater in the nineteen-sixties to earlier fine black playwrights like Owen Dodson, Randolph Evans and Douglas Ward whose works were unable to receive an adequate exposure in their time. We’ve gotten past the revolutionary stage of the sixties. “We’ve gotten past the revolutionary stage of the sixties. We can now do musicals and avant-garde and explorations of the black psyche and anything we want,” she said. “We can have our own black Shakespeares.”