Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Thought for The Playgoer on "Passing Strange" and Mark Blankenship's Variety Piece

Like I said, I'm catching up on blogging.

I caught this post on The Playgoer about Passing Strange and the "unusual non-white presence on Broadway." First, let me say that Mark Blankenship is a friend, and a good one at that.

What I felt was missing in his piece, however, was a little bit of historical perspective. True, the number of Broadway productions featuring performers of color is high at the moment, but the piece seems to imply some sort of anomaly, which I think is unintentionally misleading. The precedent for the color-blind casting of Little Sheba, one could argue, is stuff like the all-black (and very successful) Hello, Dolly!, starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, back in the 1960s; Dolly! producer David Merrick revisited the concept some 30 years later when he revived (very unsuccessfully) the Gershwin musical Oh, Kay!

There was also a time -- a long time -- when plays about people of color or featuring people of color didn't do well at the box office at all. Notice that I'm distinguishing here between plays and musicals -- I feel the real story here is the idea that people are more and more eager to pay to see people of color in plays as opposed to musicals, where the sell is always easier. There were a bunch of straight plays in the 1980s featuring black and latino actors that didn't do well at all; if I were at home and could dig out my Best Plays volumes right now, I know I'd find a bunch of examples from the 1990s as well. Mark's piece speaks to the here and now, as a Variety piece should -- nor am I questioning his research or his angle, really. But I think there's a historical perspective to consider -- the idea that actors of color are more mainstream, more inherently "box office" today than in the past.

So in that sense, I agree with The Playgoer that "this has less to do with any 'enlightened' trend among producers and audiences than with a long overdue acknowledgement that some of our best and most popular stage performers are African American and need some good roles to play!" It has everything to do with changing audience tastes, and it's high time.

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