Commentary: When black theatergoers mix with Broadway's "regular audience"

Abdul Ali,, 10/20/11

Katori Hall's new play, The Mountaintop, about the final hours of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been the subject of controversy. The play opened on Broadway a couple weeks ago -- one of a few [Broadway] plays written by black women this season. Your play has ruffled some feathers among the Civil Rights Generation -- from men and women alike. Why do you believe you've gotten such strong reactions from them?

HALL: I think we have a harder time then we think at viewing Dr. King as a person, a full human. And when we do admit he's a person, it's begrudgingly, as if to face his humanity -- with all its flaws -- Dr. King loses power. I think that this is a particular problem in the black community. We deify our leaders to the point where everyday citizens feel that they can't attain those same positions in society....I also think my work will just get strong reactions from people because of its nature. People have a hard time understanding black comedy. 'The regular theater audience' is now sitting in a room with black people from all over the country, many whom may never attend theater, especially Broadway. It's a different set of rules, a different aesthetic, a different culture. What happens when we allow for that, when we give room for that?

Earlier this year the actress Viola Davis said (I'm paraphrasing): black audiences are often more interested in image than substance. Is Davis's assessment accurate?

HALL: Hard to say. I think it's difficult to talk about the black audience as a monolith. Within the "African-American" community there is a ton of diversity. But when it comes to something like our leaders, yes, an image is easier to digest then the reality behind it. This isn't just a problem, however, for black people. Think of the way we speak about our "Founding Fathers" or the fact that there is a Christopher Columbus Day. We, all of us, not just black people, have to be able to negotiate the genius of a person and their humanity. Miles Davis was abusive to his wife. That doesn't make him any less a brilliant musician. But how do we hold both those things in our mind at once?

Above all, what would you like audiences to take away from The Mountaintop?

HALL: I want them to look around themselves during the show and see all the people sitting there that have the potential to do just as much, if not more, than Dr. King did.


Commentary: "Moneyballing" is opportunity for theaters to broaden their vision

Producer/playwright Shawn C. Harris,, 10/20/11

What if indie theatre played Moneyball? Inspired by the film currently playing at a theater near you, the idea is to peel away layers of assumptions that go into our collective wisdom about how to make theatre then replace them with processes that incorporate the scientific method and statistical analysis. The goal is to reveal true value as opposed to guesstimating and hoping for the best. On the surface, the idea may seem counterintuitive, even blasphemous. Am I suggesting that we, as artists, replace our instincts, gut feelings, and experiences with cold, hard statistics? Well, yes. Oftentimes what we call intuition, gut feeling, or instinct confirms rather than challenges our biases and habits and expectations. What this can lead to is a narrowness of vision that, instead of seeing what's really there, can only recognize what it already knows. How does this play out in today's theatrical landscape? A theatre community that is overwhelmingly White, male, and middle to upper class. For someone like me, who cares very deeply about the fact that, despite the reality of diversity in New York City, our stages reflect only a narrow subset of the people who live here, "moneyballing" theatre presents a fantastic opportunity to overcome the disparities we often reproduce in spite of our best intentions. What if, instead of relying on gut reactions and chemistry, we figured out a way to describe, observe, and measure what we are looking for? The answer to this question presents far-reaching implications for the way we select works, choose cast and crew members, engage our audiences, secure funding, and even how we structure our organizations and institutions. It starts by asking: Where are our decisions as theatre makers governed by conventional wisdom that is not supported by fact?


October issue of American Theatre magazine focuses on diversity, 10/16/11

  • In "Diversity Squared," Teresa Eyring, Theatre Communications Group's Executive Director, writes: "Meeting with TCG's intergenerational leaders of color group, I detected a profound sense that many of the issues that troubled people 30-some years ago still persist. I hope we don't end up repeating old conversations 30 years from now -- or even five years from now. The theatre field has the potential to be a true beacon for how a just and creatively prosperous society functions. Holding on to diversity as a core value means that we can celebrate the rich multiplicity of our field, and simultaneously keep a strong and attentive focus on the areas that cry out for improvement."
  • "Bruce Norris in the Danger Zone," is an interview by Beatrice Basso. Playwright and former actor Norris talks about Clybourne Park and his propensity to provoke: "Theatre has always been an expensive middle-class pursuit. It is a precious, pretentious thing for precious, pretentious people. You drive in your expensive car to the theatre, get it valet parked, and then watch a play about poor people. Why?"
  • As Jim Quinn writes in the Editor's Note: "The concept of diversity, in its myriad of meanings, pulses through the issue."

Check out American Theatre's print version for other diversity-related articles, including:

  • "At Home with Another Kind of Diversity: Abstraction" by Marissa Chibas, [who] shares insights gathered during "a passionate and well-attended panel" discussion at TCG's 2009 National Conference. "I sensed the exciting possiblity of a tantalizing relationship between adventurous form and ethnic diversity: diversity more abstract forms appealing to multilingual audiences."
  • In "Arts Demilitarized Zone," a discussion with Peter Sellars and Maya Zbib, moderated by Rob Weinert-Kendt, Sellars and Zbib discuss their involvement as mentor and mentee for the 2010-2011 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. This relationship, which has included three meetings on three separate continents, is not one generation sharing experience, knowledge and access with another. Exposure to each other's politics and cultures has influenced each other's perspectives. "Let me just say, I want to ban the term 'outreach' forever, because it's the dumbest thing on earth. It just shows how backward theatre is, that most theatres think of working in the community as outreach rather than has their core mission. Your core mission is healing your community, and the show is the outreach." - Peter Sellars
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