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Theatre for the People?

Another day, another unarmed person of color murdered by police. It is not lost on me that The Wiz live was a ratings smash, garnishing more viewers and social media interaction than either Peter Pan or The Sound of Music, but there is “racial fatigue” among whites in this country. Whites have long loved to see us sing and dance, but have not cared much about what happens to us after the songs and dances are over…What exactly is that? How is it that our black excellence in art is recognized but not our actual black lives? What is the disconnect between watching black bodies perform, and execute the uniqueness of our blackness, and having the space to allow the expression of our blackness in everyday life OFF the stage. Is it because of agency? Is there a push back when black bodies can decide what to do in real time, when there is no “safety” in knowing the narrative for the white gaze? In a play, even if the performance is live, there is a script, a director, an order of operations that lets the white audience breathe easy, they know everything that is going to happen. These black bodies are not going to deviate. I suggest that in real life, black bodies are doing what they want to do, when they want to do it, and this enables the possibility of danger for white hegemony. Not having a determined outcome of behavior scares white people who come from the assumption that black bodies are inherently up to no good. Otherwise why fear? The immense increase in ratings for the NBC production of The Wiz Live over the virtually all white cast of The Sound of Music (the one person of color in the cast was Audra Mcdonald) and Peter Pan (blacks were “natives”, a few pirates, no leads) signals that white America loves blackness, as long as it is predetermined, controlled, and imaginary.

I was shocked at how many whites in all of my social media feeds claimed they had never heard of The Wiz. This shocks me not because it was a smash on Broadway in 1975 winning multiple Tony awards, or because it was adapted into a major motion picture starring two iconic stars, Michael jackson and Diana Ross. No, I was shocked because nearly every white person I grew up with has been in some horrid all white production of two black musicals. Those being Once on this Island, and The Wiz. So to see people on social media bemoan The Wiz Live being “racist” because it did not feature white people (there were white people in a few chorus roles, just like there were a few blacks in chorus roles in Peter Pan) was odd and simultaneously frustrating. All white cast musicals are fine (see current Broadway revival of She Loves Me) but a production that features mostly black artists is racist? How is this equitable? I am actually not sure what will solve the current race crisis in the American Theatre. It seems that the black audiences that flourished during the Black Arts Movement that used to go to the theatre in droves in the sixties and seventies have all but vanished and left a gaping hole in the theatrical audiences of today. They are gone. When going to see an August Wilson play, what I see now is a largely white audience. I may see 10 people of color in the audience but that is generally it. How have we gotten to this place? The black audiences are just not there like they used to be. Are we simply wanting to just be entertained due to how hard we are actually finding real life these days? Is it the fact that life is so very hard that there is nothing else to do but try to escape it via church basement Tyler Perry plays? I refuse to believe that. Blacks have been conditioned by the media and the system to be a patron or fan of what you see yourself excelling in. Since one of the few things blacks are actually celebrated in are sports, it stands to reason that black people frequent sporting events. Although it must also be acknowledged that even within big sports there are barriers for people of color. For instance there are little to none black head coaches of NFL teams and black quarterbacks are scarce. Do you really think it is because black athletes cannot play the position of quarterback? Or that black people who excel at playing the game cannot coach others to do it? These thoughts on what is fair, and how all stories can be told and supported in commercial theatre (not just straight white men stories) bring me to the conclusion that we have a long way to go, but I do think we will get there slowly. The current crop of Tony award nominations is encouraging, as multiple artists of color have been nominated. Let’s hope the trend continues, both in shows that feature artists of color and recognition of our artistic contributions when it comes to award time.

She Loves Me Cast image

 

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This entry was posted on May 5, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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