I’ve been to a few Broadway shows over the years, and there typically aren’t a lot of black people in the audience. Close to none were at the performance of To Kill a Mockingbird I attended, for instance, even though it’s about racism. I offer a few thousand words on why I think that is in my New Criterion theater column.
A new offering, Slave Play, is promising an all-black experience, promising to fill an entire 800-theater seat with black people tonight. (It would be illegal to refuse to sell tickets to this or that race, but the all-black motif appears to be more of a suggestion than a mandate. Advertising promises: “On September 18, 2019, the 804 seats of Broadway’s Golden Theatre Will Be Occupied by An Audience of Black Identified Artists, Writers and Students.” Tickets are being sold through Telecharge, which has no race filter as far as I know.)
Broadway is a pretty overwhelmingly white medium, both creatively speaking and in the audience it attracts, but in the last couple of years the Rialto (and off-Broadway) have been putting on a lot of plays centered on blacks. This is a commercial risk because when a play is about black experience it very often is about racism, sometimes it is about little else, and the average Broadway theatergoer is probably a 65-year-old upper-middle-class white couple from New Jersey. They probably don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on an evening’s entertainment that promises to deliver a heavy message. To attract this couple, you’d be better off going with something like Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations musical that is doing well, rather than something like Slave Play, a much-talked-about piece that attracted massive attention off-Broadway last year. (I haven’t seen it yet.) It’s a play about racial issues by a young playwright (he just graduated from Yale Drama School) named Jeremy O. Harris, who has been dubbed “the queer black savior” of the theater. Last season I saw Harris’s other play Daddy, in which Alan Cumming plays a wealthy Los Angeles man having a wild affair with an artsy young black man. I found the play excruciatingly, embarrassingly bad, as though I had wandered into a therapy session.
The thing about such plays, though, is their strategy is not selling tickets to black people but to attract a specific kind of white theatergoer who is very eager to report for punishment. Of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, which last spring won the Pulitzer Prize, Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote:
Let me give you fair warning on Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s dazzling and ruthless new play: If you see it — and you must — you will not be comfortable.
That’s not because the seats at Soho Rep, where this extraordinary show opened on Sunday night, are any harder or lumpier than those of most small, downtown theaters. But you will undoubtedly be squirming in yours.
You will also wind up questioning your basic right to sit there, especially if, like the majority of New York theatergoers, you are a white person. And some time after the show has ended, when you’re thinking straight again, you’ll realize just how artfully you have been toyed with before the final kill, as the mouse to one canny cat of a play.
Fairvew heads for a climactic moment in which white audience members are told to come up and stand on the stage, then are studiously ignored while the actors address however many (few) black people remain in the audience. Jesse Green, also of the Times, wrote about being admonished for his whiteness:
I didn’t feel absolved of anything and I can’t speak for others but I definitely felt that I ought to do what this black playwright wanted me to do. Because, God knows, white people have been telling black people what to do for so long, especially in the theater. And what’s the harm to me, really? It pushed me outside of my comfort zone but I trusted that she had something she wanted to show me, as a white person, that was worth seeing. But that’s where the hard question comes in. Who is the play really for? Would Fairview even work if 90 percent of the audience were of color?
I doubt it! Just as I doubt Slave Play, despite hoping for an all-black audience tonight, is actually aimed at black people. Green, writing about Fairview, goes on to muse about his own complicity in the horrors of white-centric theater. He calls it “racism” that white actors once played Othello in blackface (is it?) and feels “guilt by association” about that. He’s grateful when he gets “confronted by a powerful playwright that wants to push me around.” He also worries, however, that scourging himself with a figurative cat-o-nine-tails at the theater is letting himself off too easy. He worries that “these plays may soothe liberal guilt, even while engaging it.”
If you feel guilty about being white, it’s fine to do that in your own home. But the theater world would prefer that you spend hundreds of dollars to come and feel guilty about it in public. How wise a marketing strategy this is will be seen.