The hallmark, perhaps the bedrock of civilization is the development of a commonality between citizens of a nation that connects the living population with the long deceased and will unite the unborn to that past.
Tales of past grandeur passed down orally or through the written word help maintain ties that bind those living to events that transpired long before their birth.
Black people in America, denied any connection to the rich heritage of Africa after their ancestors were sold into slavery by members of either their own or a warring tribe, have created new foundational myths that unite them as one.
Puzzling though is how impoverished the traditions of Africa and the Black experience in the United States has been, compared to that which developed in Europe and in the outposts of that civilization throughout the world wherever Europeans have propagated.
Art, literature, theater, music and dance are all different elements that when combined help create a rich cultural tableau that develops a clear portrait of the commonality binding a civilization together.
Black people have already been found to find classical music a most irritating nuisance to their auditory system, though the vuvuzela is a musical device that brings joy to the always ebullient Black face.
Though many scoff at the so-called fine arts as an avocation whose followers would never dare utter “No Homo” but graciously accept such so-called negative terminology, many of the theatrical performances, concerts, operas, ballets that are performed in cultural centers pay homage to a distinct culture, rooted in Pre-Obama America.
Yet Black people are rare in these areas that help entertain and educate those who view and appreciate them. The fine arts and the performance arts have a dearth of Black people – like the Winter Olympics – that underlie the deepest fears of Disingenuous White Liberals (DWLs): that Black people don’t want to be just like them.
You see, DWL’s are the ultimate white supremacists as they believe that Black people must be exactly like them: espousing the same fundamental beliefs; enjoying the same forms of entertainment and tastes; and conforming to a rigid interpretation of the world guided by DWL tastes.
Take our hand, white liberals say, and we will continue to be your guide on the Underground Railroad… but only do as we say.
These same white liberals bemoan the lack of Black involvement in the so-called fine arts, never realizing that Black people created their own forms of cultural commonality that bind them to their own community. They have purposely rejected all mores of Pre-Obama America and embrace the teachings that unite them to their community.
As a snapshot of ballet in this country, the six-day, nine-company Ballet Across America series at the Kennedy Center, which concluded Sunday, offered some good news but little revelation. The primary take-away is that whether you're talking Memphis or Tulsa, Seattle or Charlotte, there's an impressively high level of skill among the nation's ballet dancers.
The companies are also overwhelmingly white and dotted with Europeans -- as they have always been. Diversity in ballet remains a serious problem for the small companies as well as the large, on the coasts as well as in the heartland. In the 21st century, we can put a black man in the White House, but as last week's survey shows, we can't put a black ballerina in the Opera House. Clearly, not enough work is being done to foster African American dancers. But with public money in their coffers, ballet companies -- and the local, state and federal funders -- need to make equal opportunity in the dancer ranks a priority.
That's the story on the dancers. But what did the series tell us about their leaders? Here was the surprise: The last shall be first. In terms of repertoire, the greatest rewards came from the smallest companies, which appear to be doing the most creative work with the fewest resources: First, North Carolina Dance Theatre with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's "Shindig" and a live bluegrass band, then Ballet Memphis with Trey McIntyre's emotional take on Roy Orbison. Friday, it was the tiny, 10-dancer Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Jorma Elo's "Red Sweet."
Black people have no incentive to joining ballet troupes, for the performances all glorify halcyon days of a past that had little to do with them. Culturally the most important ballets have their roots in Europe, a land historically deprived of Black people.
More to the point, DWL’s at The New York Times publish a story about the growing number of Black Broadway plays that cater to a specific, built in target market:
They thought it was about Elvis.
That’s what a focus group of a dozen African-American women concluded about the musical “Memphis” last summer when they were asked to assess the show’s tagline, “The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
But after seeing artwork featuring Felicia, the black R&B singer in the show, and after hearing about the turbulent romance between the character and a white D.J., the women in the focus group said the show was much more up their alley.
With that in mind, the producers changed the “Memphis” tagline before opening on Broadway to: “His Vision, Her Voice. The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
The use of focus groups is one of several diversity strategies, aggressive by theater standards, used not only by “Memphis” but also by another new Broadway musical, “Fela!”; the new play “Race”; and the revival of “Fences” — all shows centered on black characters, who are rarely in the forefront of major plays and musicals.
While the “Memphis” producers estimate that 25 to 30 percent of their audience is black, the producers of “Fela!” and “Race” say that their outreach has resulted in black theatergoers’ making up 40 percent of attendees. “Fences” and its star, Denzel Washington, are also drawing large numbers of black people, though the show began selling out early and has been a tough ticket to obtain, a spokesman said.
Broadway shows about black characters often draw black theatergoers, but the producers of “Memphis” and “Fela!” as well as producers of some coming shows are particularly going after African-Americans, given that Broadway’s overall attendance has been on the decline, down 3 percent for the 2009-10 season. Whether black theatergoers become a larger, reliable part of the Broadway audience remains to be seen, as do the range and quality of the shows that are offered to appeal to them.
Yet producers clearly sense a market that has not been tapped out: This fall’s Broadway lineup already includes two new musicals about black men, “Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” and possibly the new two-character play “The Mountaintop,” about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., depending on whether the producers can land the stars Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry.
Indeed, the producers of “Memphis” credit word of mouth among black people for helping keep the show alive through slow-selling weeks to reach the Tony Award voting season that began in May and ended when “Memphis” won the top award for best new musical this month.
While some theater critics and rival producers have derided “Memphis” as a conventional show and have spurned its story of racial reconciliation as simplistic, the musical’s success at building a black audience is anything but business as usual for Broadway. Yes, some of the marketing strategies were tried before with the 2005 musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” but that show had a well-known title and Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement going for it.
By contrast, “Memphis” has no stars and an unknown score and story. But its producers believed that their show would become known as memorable entertainment if buzz spread among enough so-called Broadway taste-makers — who, in the case of “Memphis,” were not the usual critics, bloggers and veteran theatergoers, but instead African-American ministers, choir directors and black women.
“Anyone who says that ‘Memphis’ is somehow unoriginal as a piece of musical theater is missing the impact that the show is having on a wide cross section of people who feel that Broadway isn’t usually for them,” said Sue Frost, a lead producer of “Memphis,” who noted with pride that Michelle Obama took her two daughters to a performance of the musical this spring. (The three also caught “The Addams Family.”)
The R&B flavor of the show, and the serious treatment of African-American life in the segregated 1950s, were the selling points of the show for Willie Anderson, a tourist from Atlanta who took a group of 11 relatives and friends to a recent performance. Each paid $94 a ticket.
“We wanted to see something with some African flavor, and what we heard in Atlanta was that ‘Memphis’ was a show worth seeing,” Mr. Anderson said. “The main thing is, you want music that you’ll appreciate and like. I have nothing against ‘Mary Poppins,’ but I don’t see that as a show for us like ‘Memphis’ will be.”
One theater group-sales company that focuses on minorities, Full House Theater Tickets Inc., reported that “Memphis,” “Race,” and “Fela!” had drawn disproportionately large numbers of African-Americans. (Group sales are a cornerstone of commercial success for most shows.) “Fela!,” about the Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, has sent vans emblazoned with the show’s logo and playing Mr. Kuti’s music to racially diverse neighborhoods, where the drivers hand out brochures for the show and talk it up to passers-by.
“Part of the appeal of these shows is that they give black audiences something to talk about,” said Sandie M. Smith, president of Full House. “For ‘Race,’ we went after and got African-American attorneys’ associations, groups that dealt with the justice system and, in some cases, created post-show discussions because there were rich topics to discuss.”
Many of these post-performance conversations have happened at the theater district restaurant B. Smith’s, named for its owner, the black entrepreneur and former television show host.
To expose young people to Broadway and, with luck, spread word about the show to more parents, the “Memphis” producers spent $75,000 on their own program, Inspire Change, that has sent cast members into schools and then students from those schools — nearly 1,000 so far — to the musical. The program began after a fifth-grade teacher at the KIPP Star College Prep Charter School, in Harlem, wrote to the “Memphis” producers after seeing a performance and asked if the musical had an educational outreach component and discount tickets for students.
“A week after we saw it,” said the teacher, Trenton Price, “I introduced the vocabulary word ‘integrate’ in class, and a kid used an example from ‘Memphis’ — about how the white D.J. goes into Felicia’s bar, but the bar wasn’t integrated at that point.”
Felicia, the R&B singer who is the leading lady of the show (played by Montego Glover), has proved to be a draw for African-Americans. The marketing team for “Memphis” played clips of Ms. Glover singing Felicia’s big first-act number, “Colored Woman,” at Harlem street fairs, as well as at beauty salons, churches and community centers in predominantly black neighborhoods in New York City.
The lyrics — “Colored woman with few chances/Has to do what she must do!” — proved captivating to women in particular, according to Ms. Frost, the producer.
Still, Ms. Frost and her main producing partner, Randy Adams, acknowledged that African-American support was not enough to sustain a Broadway show: “Memphis” grossed $835,071 for the week ending June 20, its best box office week so far, but the show has sold unevenly during some weeks and is far away from turning a profit.
“It takes time to reach a tipping-point moment where everyone is talking about your show,” Mr. Adams said. “We just have to keep faith that our fans will continue spreading the word.”
Like the Disney produced cinematic bomb, The Princess and the Frog, Black people will flock to Black produced shows, but the production will have a limited return on investment as targeting a negligible portion of the population will yield pitiable results. Unless your name is Tyler Perry, that is.
About 75 percent of Broadway theatergoers are white, though according to the Broadway League, which co-sponsors the Tony Awards, audiences have become ''slightly more diverse over the past decade.'' Blacks, Latinos and Asians made up the balance. In the 2008-2009 season, when shows included In the Heights, Rent, Thurgood and Joe Turner's Come and Gone and the all-black version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, less than 3 percent of 12.15 million tickets sold were to black Broadway theatergoers. In recent years, when the lineup included the Oprah Winfrey-produced The Color Purple and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof--starring James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose and directed by Debbie Allen--black turnout was double that. (There was some overlap between seasons with Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.) The overall gross annual revenue is something like $700 million--even in these dire and confused economic times.
DWL’s at The Los Angeles Times had the temerity to question whether white people should direct Black plays and if Black people should direct white plays:
Randolph-Wright and Epps are among the relatively few African American theater artists who have had the chance to direct major productions of nonblack plays, including Molière, Shakespeare, Stoppard, Noel Coward, Ibsen and more. Both have also worked in television; Epps directed many episodes of "Frasier" and "Friends." And yet, despite their personal successes, they both perceive a systemic ill.
"The problem is, there is no balance," says Randolph-Wright, who appeared in the original Broadway version of "Dreamgirls" before turning to writing and directing. "I don't think by any means that Bart Sher can't direct an August Wilson play or any kind of play. But people of color don't get the reverse opportunity."
Penn says that among SDC rank and file, "most didn't begrudge Bart the opportunity. The conversation was about Wilson having been for so long something African American directors could count on and that there should be more access and opportunities for artists of color." Penn was formerly the managing director of the Intiman Theater in Seattle, where she worked with artistic director Sher. During their years working together there, the Intiman, like Pasadena, successfully mixed it up in terms of assignments, with white directors directing nonwhite works and vice versa.
Yet because opportunities that have traditionally gone to black directors -- such as Wilson's plays -- may now be open to directors of any color is of concern to Randolph-Wright. "There was not one black director on Broadway last season," he notes. "And the frightening thing now is, I'm not even going to get the black project."
Classical music is another avenue that Black people believe is a path that leads directly to white people, and thus a corridor that must be avoided:
For some Americans, Barack Obama’s election was the fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equal racial opportunity. Others, less starry-eyed, knew there’s still work to do. Nowhere is that point more obvious than in a typical symphony orchestra.
Like the Sunday morning church service, the Sunday afternoon concert is basically segregated by race, allegedly for similar reasons— black (and brown) people don’t like classical music, and that’s why we don’t patronize it, never mind perform it. So goes the theory, which once believed becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy even if it’s fallacious.
I speak from experience. In Western Canada, where I grew up, people of African descent comprised such a tiny minority that we greeted each other with a smile or a nod as a show of solidarity and an acknowledgement that our shared melanin meant we were collectively swimming against the prevailing tide. My siblings and I were always the only black people in our class when we competed in local music festivals— it was just a given.
Nor can this situation be dismissed as a western Canadian phenomenon. Since my graduation from Juilliard in 1993, I’m told, that elite music school hasn’t enrolled a single black female pianist.
All humans are aware, from an early age, of visual differences. When you’re constantly identified as “them,” you yearn to be part of “us”; and when you’re black, the virulent history associated with racism stalks you, regardless of your financial bracket and education. I’m constantly aware that, as a black woman with unprocessed hair, I’m not what comes to mind when most people think of a classical pianist.
Whenever I attend a classical concert, I know I’ll be in a very small minority. I accept this fact of life; but for others, that degree of conspicuousness may suffice to deter them from attending at all (even if most of the whites in the audience couldn’t care less if we’re there or not).
All the more reason, then, to salute Jeri Lynne Johnson, a Philadelphian who has challenged conventional wisdom.
Rejected as ‘unmarketable’
Johnson, formerly the assistant conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, founded the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in 2008 after the selection committee of an American orchestra told her that it didn’t matter that she was good enough to be one of three finalists out of a group of 300 applicants— as a young, black female conductor, the search committee said, she’s unmarketable to their audience. Instead of accepting this assessment, Johnson decided to disprove that theory by uniting a diverse group of passionate musicians.
“I never thought of starting an orchestra as ambitious,” she told me. “It was just something that needed to be done in order to prove my point.”
So far, Johnson’s goals are being met and more. Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra has played to large audiences and received enthusiastic reviews.
Top-flight musicians, a strong business plan and efficient administration have helped, of course. But the key factor appears to be Johnson’s decision to market to audiences largely ignored by other orchestras: African- and Latin-American people.
What about Opera? Though many DWL’s would enjoy the sight of Black people participating in this cherished form of entertainment, thus far integration has been moving at a snail’s pace.
No matter how poorly they are received, Disingenuous White Liberals and Crusading White Pedagogues have an ingrained notion of hegemony over Black people and earnestly believe they can remake the entire race in their own image if only Black people would capitulate to their superior culture.
Yet Black people reject white culture by refusing to participate in events that are insufficiently part of their shared cultural experience as departing from their culture means acquiescence to the mores peddled by DWLs and white teachers.
Black people want to participate in Black cultural events and traditions that glorify their shared commonality and the struggle that they have endured at the hands of white people.
Liberals trying to get them to embrace the cultural that enslaved them for so long through enjoyment of classical music, ballet, the opera and Broadway fail to understand that Black people want nothing to do with these “white” forms of entertainment for they are part of the cultural history of a people they find intolerable.
Stuff Black People Don’t Like includes the fine arts, for unless Black people have written, produced, directed and starred in any of these various disciplines then it is axiomatic that the aforementioned endeavor is a celebration of white people and their past.
James Baldwin expressed this view best in Stranger in the Village, when he wrote:
For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modem world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in away that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York's Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory-but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.