July 12, 2009 / 1:18 PM / 8 years ago

Black culture lights up Broadway's Great White Way

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When U.S. President Barack Obama took his wife, Michelle, to a Broadway play by African American playwright August Wilson about a black father’s search for freedom, ticket sales for the production spiked.

<p>Restaurant patrons try to catch sight of US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama leaving the theater during a personal visit for dinner and a Broadway play in New York, May 30, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst</p>

As the presidential visit cast a spotlight on Wilson’s revival, playwrights and theater observers say both Obama’s election and more open theaters and audiences have helped bring more stories of black culture to the New York stage this year.

Both on Broadway and off-Broadway, plays and musicals about black culture or issues of race are being praised and more productions are in the works.

“Now is the time to strike,” said playwright Tracey Scott Wilson, whose play “The Good Negro” about the civil rights movement had a successful off-Broadway run this year.

The election of the first black U.S. president is having an enormous influence on culture and theater, Wilson said. “Obama is everywhere,” she said. “This is a seismic event.”

Some plays shown off-Broadway include “Ruined” by New York playwright Lynn Nottage, about rape in a Congolese brothel; “Inked Baby” by Christina Anderson about environmental racism; and Carlyle Brown’s “Pure Confidence,” a drama set in the world of Civil War-era horse racing.

On Broadway, Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” sold well; a musical revival of “Dreamgirls” about a group of black musicians opens in November; and a new musical, “Memphis,” that opens in October looks at the roots of rock ‘n’ roll set against the segregation polices of the 1950s U.S. South.

And, in one of the most anticipated events, American playwright David Mamet premieres a new play in the fall called “Race.” Mamet, whose plays often address themes of masculinity, has not said what the play is about, but a producer told The New York Times, “I think the title speaks for itself.”

GREATER DESIRE FOR BLACK STORIES

“You can’t underestimate the importance of Obama on this theater season,” said Joe DiPietro, who wrote the book and lyrics for “Memphis.”

Others said Obama had influenced the theatrical landscape but a combination of factors had contributed to the current crop of stories about black culture and experience.

“With Obama coming to office there is a desire to see work that is more expansive and more inclusive,” said Nottage, whose play won a Pulitzer Prize this year.

“But it isn’t just a reflection of him but also of the ... last eight years that we have lived here -- politically, socially and economically,” she said.

Carlyle Brown, who has been called one of the more significant American playwrights to not regularly stage his plays in New York, said one reason there were more such works was “maybe a greater acceptance on the part of the audience.”

“Certainly the quality of writing by African American writers nowadays is great and diverse and interesting,” said the 63-year-old playwright.

Others, like theater director Bartlett Sher, who directed Wilson’s play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” said stories by black writers were now viewed as more mainstream.

“The opportunities for African American artists and their stories and the place it has in our consciousness is all slowly and fundamentally changing,” he said. “The African American story is the American story.”

But times of hope and greater diversity can reverse, noted Nottage.

“Sometimes there are moments of great optimism and changes and then within a year it reverts back to the same old,” she said. “I hope it does keep moving toward greater inclusion.”

Editing by Michelle Nichols and Todd Eastham

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