Broadway's Expanding Palette ; Three New Works Starring African-Americans Are Opening in the Next Two Months

By Kim Campbell writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 2004 | Go to article overview

Broadway's Expanding Palette ; Three New Works Starring African-Americans Are Opening in the Next Two Months


Kim Campbell writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


This spring, Broadway is looking more like the city it inhabits - diverse. Works by or about African-Americans - the musical "Caroline, or Change," and dramas "Drowning Crow" and "A Raisin in the Sun" - are all slated to open in the next two months. They'll join Pulitzer Prize-winning "Anna in the Tropics," about Cuban emigres, and long-running musicals with black cast members, "The Lion King" and "Aida."

Theatergoers today typically have to go to venues well beyond the neon lights of Times Square to find plays that address modern cultural struggles and ideas that aren't set to music. The triptych of African-American tales spanning the post-World War II era to the present will temporarily add more color to Broadway's palette, but along the way may also prompt a discussion about what really constitutes diversity on US theater's most high-profile road.

"In my opinion, it's unusual for there to be three plays on Broadway that deal with the lives of African-Americans. I don't think that that's often happened," says Alfred Preisser, artistic director at the Classical Theater of Harlem. "I'm not sure it signifies anything other than a coincidence. Hopefully, it means that ... the Broadway theater is becoming more diverse as a reflection of our society."

The plays in question share some universal themes - the desire to move up in the world, to have more money, or more career recognition. But they also have something else in common: They're all rooted in the past. "A Raisin in the Sun" and "Caroline, or Change" cover aspects of black life the '50s and '60s, and "Drowning Crow," despite being set in the present, is based on a 100-year-old play, "The Seagull," by Anton Chekhov.

That's the observation of Arthur French, one of the original cast members of the Negro Ensemble Company. He is supportive of the productions, but points out that in his view, none of them grows out of current African-American experience. "I don't know ... what relevancy they have," he says. "They don't seem to me to have anything to do with black people. Period. None of them ... speak to our lives today."

Based on his experience with the NEC in the 1970s, French says contemporary African-American voices used be more present on Broadway. Many of the NEC's plays made the jump, including "The First Breeze of Summer" and "The River Niger." Even a play he's doing now at the Harlem Theatre Company, "OBATALA," about African mythology, has more relevance than what's being offered today, he says.

His point isn't unique to works starring African-Americans. Broadway is full of revivals and shows that are based on movies or set to old pop music, as producers look for ways to fill seats. They leave the experimenting to those in Off-Broadway and regional theaters. It is in those venues, says French, where plays about contemporary black issues are more common.

The latest round of plays does, however, mean that African- American actors, sometimes scarce on Broadway, are getting more work. And in many cases, the same principle guiding everything from "The Producers" to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" - that star power sells tickets - may be responsible for them making it onto a Broadway marquee at all. …

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