The Octoroon, Act IV, by Dion Boucicault1859 (print held by Special Collections, Templeman Library, University of Kent)
As mentioned in class, this particular topic was difficult to discuss because there are so many ideas in our culture about what theater is and what it can do, and there are inherent issues regarding the inherent socioeconomic problem of who has access to its community. There is a kind of theater being performed today in New York City in the off-broadway circuit (mind you, the prices of these are still astronomically higher than the price of a movie ticket) that is proposed to be an experience for our youth. I have heard writers and sat in on meeting where this is stated, that these plays are intended for “young people,” “young people of color,” “queer people of color,” “black people,” “women,” the list goes on and on. This performance is liberalism works to both satisfy two sides—artistic directors who want to appear daring and “diverse” in their programming love to hear it, and the economically capable older, whiter audiences can feel that they’ve experienced some inherent truth about the people that the system they live and work inside of marginalizes.
The Broadway League, an association of theater owners and producers, releases a report on the demographics of Broadway audiences each year. This year saw improvements toward the audience writers purport they are “writing for,” however the numbers are still very skewed.
Some of the report:
- The average age of the Broadway theatregoer was 40.6 years old, the lowest since 2000.
- One quarter of all tickets were purchased by non-Caucasian theatregoers.
- Of theatregoers age 25 or older, 81% had completed college and 41% had earned a graduate degree.
- The average annual household income of the Broadway theatregoer was $222,120.
And while “diversity” is also rising statistically on New York stages, as published in a study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition in the 2015-16 season, still only 35% of roles on all NYC stages were performed by people of color. When you look at the breakdown of individual theaters, you can see that some of the most famous and well attended theaters, such as Roundabout Theatre Company and MCC Theater, only had 5% of roles cast with actors of color.
I included an illustration of The Octoroon as a reminder on what the tradition of theater in the United States is built on. minstrel shows where the bread and butter of American theater and popular culture at a time when (1) theater was available to the masses, even the lower class masses, and (2) realism was in style and developed the stock types (mammy, buck, Tom, etc.) of the shows as actual black personalities and lived experiences in the minds of its audiences. Certainly, we've come a long way, but it is work mentioning that when theatermakers revisit these types today, they are not always doing so in commentary.
All this is to say in regard to my presentation, that there is a real gap in between what our theater’s most daring writers say they are doing for representation in the media and what is actually happening. When writers represent subjects such as slavery in their medium, what is the effect it has based on the audience that sees it, and further, based on the hoops through which a theater will go to deradicalize it in order to keep their subscriber base pleased? This is a phenomenon we see with ever massive hits such as Hamilton, the work is made and performed by people of color, taking a white American narrative and claiming it, yet tickets are nearly impossible to obtain, unless you are willing and able to pay thousands of dollars to secure one. The question of who gets to participate in theater is crucially relevant to how writers and other theater-makers develop their work and ultimately, their perspectives on such work.