Monday, March 2, 2015

Trend: The stage and Black History Month

Artistic directors say they believe that relegating plays about race or African Americans to one month a season minimizes not just the work but the talent pool of black theater artists. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reports.

Trend: The stage and Black History Month


By Howard Shapiro

Soon after Black History Month became a February fixture in the mid-1970s, professional stages in big cities around the country began to pick up on it, and for a time it seemed as though a growing canon of African American-themed plays would be available — but only in February.

As that collection of work has become richer and audiences have become more diverse, February has become a less visible month for such productions. Indeed, many artistic directors say they believe that relegating plays about race or African Americans to one month a season minimizes not just the work but the talent pool of black theater artists.

Other arts leaders talk about the outdated nature of such a month for theaters, indicating that minority audiences now come to the theater in more numbers than ever — especially to shows that interest them culturally, any time of the year.

Even so — although it is a coincidence — this February, three major works about race, the black community and America’s history with both are playing on Philadelphia stages. A fourth show is Temple University’s production of the adaptation of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson by Charles Smith, an older play that Temple officials say has never been done in the city. It opens Feb. 8.

Theater companies are staging the plays in February for a number of reasons, but their leaders say Black History Month is not among them — though no one would deny that the productions might have more currency because of their timing. All three professional companies also have staged plays about race in other slots during their seasons.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company decided to slot The Scottsboro Boys — arguably the edgiest musical about racism and anti-Semitism ever — through Feb. 19 because that’s when its creators, who oversaw it on Broadway and are doing the same here, were available. The company’s production is the first one since the show, about a real-life travesty of justice against nine black teens in the ’30s, left New York.

Black History Month as a time for such work “has become limited thinking,” says Sara Garonzik, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s producing artistic director. “I think we’ve all gotten away from that. It’s sort of unimaginative and cliched and shows a lack of faith in when you can produce plays like this.”

In fact, even in Broadway’s big-money theater, where the stakes soar, race and black life have been major themes all season during the past few years. This Broadway season alone, in its half-way mark, includes a fantasy about the last night of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (The Mountaintop), a play about an upper-class black family on Martha’s Vineyard (Stick Fly) and a revival of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. All draw what’s called “crossover” audiences — racially mixed and with other diverse demographics.

“We’ve never selected a play specifically in honor of Black History Month,” says Terrence J. Nolen, producing artistic director of the Arden Theatre Company, where Clybourne Park opens Wednesday after a week of previews and runs through March 18. The funny play by Bruce Norris won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize; set in the same Chicago neighborhood as A Raisin in the Sun, it offers perhaps the frankest discussion of prejudice on the modern stage. A production now in Los Angeles will come to Broadway this spring.

The Arden did The Whipping Man in the fall — a play with several themes, including a growing sense of post-Civil War black identity. Telling stories that represent the demographics of Philadelphia “has been an important part of our work,” Nolen says, “but trying to time it to a certain part of the year has never been our focus.”

Nolen points out that a top Arden seller — the musical Caroline, Or Change, about a white Jewish family in the South and their black servants — ran in April.

Plays & Players, which in recent years has evolved into a professional company at its Delancey Street theater, is running August Wilson’s classic Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, through Saturday; most of the run has been in January. There was a time when the work of the late Wilson, black and among America’s great playwrights, was widely available to audiences — in February.

“Black History Month was not part of our conversation when planning the season and choosing this piece,” says Daniel Student, producing artistic director of Plays & Players. “Once we found the slot for it, we realized we were going into Black History Month” — but only then, he says.

Next season, Plays & Players will be producing black playwright Suzan Lori-Parks’ The America Play, about a black man who looks just like Abraham Lincoln. “It will run in April,” Student says.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter.

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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