Taking Center Stage

In addition to being the new senior multimedia content producer and a longtime member of the Black Enterprise family, I have co-written two plays in the past seven years that I self-produced off-off Broadway. So it stands to reason that I was thrilled to learn that productions by three African American female playwrights were Broadway-bound this season: Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, and Suzan-Lori Parks’ reimagined The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.

The driving force behind our cover story, “The Business of Broadway,” was my desire to spotlight an elite group of African American producers and directors who work backstage, paving the way for a greater diversity of faces, voices, and stories onstage. We also decided to focus on the new face of Broadway, Grammy Award-winning songstress Alicia Keys, who is a co-producer of Stick Fly. Keys is following in the footsteps of other black entertainers who have signed on as investors and producers of Broadway shows. In 2009, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith came in as backers of the musical Fela! And The Color Purple went on to gross more than $100 million during its run from 2005 to 2008.

But it was hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs who first proved that black shows aligned with black stars could draw huge black audiences–and net profits to boot. Combs starred (and reportedly invested) in the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Acting coach Susan Batson, who prepared him for the role of Walter Lee, was one of Raisin‘s 13 producers and the only African American. Propelled by an audience that was 80% black, the play recouped its $2.4 million initial investment, grossing $7.9 million.

Black Broadway productions mounted by white producers are nothing new. Black plays going back to Raisin and musicals such as Sophisticated Ladies always had white producers and white audiences, says former Goldman Sachs investment banker Stephen Byrd, co-producer of the all-black cast revival of the 2008 hit Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the upcoming A Streetcar Named Desire. “When it came to black plays, black audiences didn’t go outside of their comfort zone past the Beacon Theater.” But Byrd asserts that there is an underserved audience out there for shows that fall between Tyler Perry and August Wilson.

We hope this story will also serve as a call to action for more African American businesspeople, entertainers, and athletes to step up as Broadway producers and investors to get such shows made, utilizing resources such as the Theatrical Index (www.theatricalindex.com) to learn about plans for productions. It’s time for us to move down stage front and center.

Despite barriers to entry such as capital and tightly controlled theater space, a successful commercial mount on the Great White Way could be a long-term investment. “At the end of the day, it’s about real estate, if you can afford to live in that house, you get to rent it. As long as your play makes money you can continue to live there,” says director-producer extraordinaire George C. Wolfe.

Just as with the limited real estate on Broadway, there’s more great content than we could fit on these pages. Visit BlackEnterprise.com to view galleries on black-oriented Broadway shows. And watch the one-on-one interview with Keys on Our World with Black Enterprise.