This past weekend I saw Outcry at JACK, the storefront performance space in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Written by Thais Francis, the show is an expression of grief and anger at the innocent black men who have been killed for no other cause than racial profiling. My friend Kelley Girod who produced the show termed it “more of an event than a play.” Slain figures like Emmett Till (killed in 1955) and Trayvon Martin (killed in 2012) find themselves in the same place. Heaven, maybe. The show runs through February 17th and is worth seeing. While the script gets clumsy at times, and Thais is inclined to use diary-worthy lines like, “when it’s real, it’s forever”, the idea to combine the lives and deaths of these innocent souls is powerful. Also powerful was seeing great diversity in the audience. It’s not common at the theater.
Kelley, a black playwright and producer, has thought a lot about what attracts black audiences. We talked after the show about Broadway productions that have appealed to people of color and the various reasons why. Most notable are the plays that focus on black characters (like The Color Purple), especially when they feature prominent actors (like The Mountaintop). There are also shows that happen to have a black celebrity (like Chris Rock in Motherfucker with the Hat). Interestingly, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess had a surprisingly small African American turnout. Maybe the opera struck prospective audiences as being dated. Or maybe Audra McDonald’s celebrity is only a draw for audiences that already love musicals.
For four years, Kelley has produced The Fire This Time Festival – a presentation of plays by writers of African and African American descent. The initial idea was to support – and create an outlet for – black writers. And to combat the idea that a black playwright “has to write a play that has black themes, like overcoming slavery,” she says. “If the play is written by a black playwright, then it will relate to a black experience in some way.” As a result, The Fire This Time covers a wide variety of subjects, some racially themed, others not at all. It keeps the festival eclectic, though Kelley admits that a show like Outcry has an easier time raising funds. There is a greater sense of urgency for investors precisely because the black themes are so prominent.
When I saw Motherfucker with the Hat and noticed how many black people were in the audience, my thought was that it stemmed from the desire to see Chris Rock on Broadway. And that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps the presence of black actors – famous or not – is the strongest factor. Regardless of the narrative, audiences of any race want to see an element of themselves onstage.