At a recent Wednesday night performance of the all-black Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Ramona Scott, 52, ran into a couple she’d worked for as a baby sitter almost 40 years ago. She saw another couple who had been friends of hers during the 1970s. “Cat” was where everybody seemed to be.
“A lot of my friends and family don’t go out to plays,” said Ms. Scott, a frequent theatergoer herself. “But when they hear of one that has a large black audience, they want to go and see it.”
“Cat,” which stars James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose, has a large audience, all right; last week it sold nearly $700,000 in tickets, an outstanding number for a nonmusical. Stephen C. Byrd, the rookie producer of “Cat,” estimates the audience to be between 70 percent and 80 percent African-American.
Mr. Byrd now has plans for a multiracial version of “A Streetcar Named Desire”; a stage adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, “Giovanni’s Room”; and a new production of “Death of a Salesman.” He has even had informal talks with Je’Caryous Johnson, a young playwright who works on the increasingly sophisticated urban play circuit — derisively called the chitlin circuit — about bringing Mr. Johnson’s original work to Broadway.
The agenda is ambitious considering that just five years ago there were questions about whether black audiences would come to a Broadway show in significant numbers. But now, said Marcia Pendleton, the founder of Walk Tall Girl Productions, a marketing and group-sales company that reaches out to nontraditional theatergoers, “we have hard facts that this is a viable audience that can sustain a production.”
The first life of this “Cat” goes back to the middle 1990s, when, after years as an investment banker, Mr. Byrd wanted to do something different. He was frustrated by Hollywood and decided to try the stage, heading to Coliseum Books on West 57th Street to buy a stack of books on how to be a Broadway producer.
There was little evidence then that an all-black play would have much success. Even the 1987 production of “Fences,” the only August Wilson play that was a box office hit, had trouble drawing an African-American crowd.
“There was no black audience,” Carole Shorenstein Hays, the producer of “Fences,” said. “They didn’t feel like they had a place on Broadway.”
Change came slowly. Russell Simmons’s “Def Poetry Jam” had trouble attracting black theatergoers in 2002, while earlier that same year Suzan-Lori Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog,” starring Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def, was a commercial success with a diverse audience. The breakthrough, though, occurred four years ago, with the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.” Few saw it coming.
“People said to me, ‘If you can get 20 percent of the audience to be black, that will be fantastic,’ ” said David Binder, the lead producer of “Raisin.” “Everyone thought you couldn’t do an African-American play on Broadway, that an African-American audience wouldn’t support you. I had a very hard time getting the show up, in terms of getting money, in terms of co-producers, in terms of everything.”
Even the casting of the rap mogul Sean Combs (or Diddy, if you prefer) was not enough to convince industry veterans that the show could bring in the crowds. Benjamin Mordecai, the longtime producer of Wilson’s plays, said in an interview with The New York Times when “Raisin” opened that “a young, hip, urban audience” would be slow in coming, and that traditional white audiences would be wary of Mr. Combs’s bad-boy reputation.
He was sort of right. “Raisin,” which got middling reviews, needed a few weeks to take off. But soon, propelled by mostly black audiences, it began setting house records and recouped its initial investment in nine weeks. The second part of Mr. Mordecai’s prediction, Mr. Binder said, proved disappointingly accurate. Quite a few old Broadway hands, the kind of people who go to everything, skipped the show, Mr. Binder said. “I got that from many people,” he said. “Like, ‘That’s great, but that’s not for me.’ ”
Scott Sanders, the lead producer of the 2005 musical “The Color Purple,” faced similar challenges (although musicals, with black or white casts, have an easier time attracting audiences than plays). Mr. Sanders was expecting perhaps a 10th of the audience to be African-American. But for the second time in two years the black proportion of a Broadway audience was above 50 percent, with groups coming from Chicago, Washington and elsewhere to make the show a hit. Notably absent, however, were the so-called “avids,” the middle-aged white women who go to five or six Broadway shows a year and are considered the live-or-die demographic for most productions.
“I think some people may have looked at it and thought the subject matter is not their cup of tea,” Mr. Sanders said. In part to reassure such people, the ”Purple” production created television commercials featuring admiring testimonials from theatergoers, several of whom were white (and one of whom was Gloria Steinem). As it somewhat bizarrely turned out, Mr. Sanders said, the development that finally drew white theatergoers in higher numbers was the arrival of Fantasia, an “American Idol” winner, in the lead role.
Some African-American groups that went to “Topdog,” “Raisin” and the 2005 production of “Julius Caesar” starring Denzel Washington, Ms. Pendleton said, had not seen much Broadway, though some had seen theater on the urban circuit or Off Broadway. While they may have developed a Broadway-going habit, it is not, so far, a habit that stretches beyond shows with mostly black actors.
“Doesn’t happen much,” Ms. Pendleton said. “Anybody that is a hard-core theatergoer will go to see anything, but initially people just want to see themselves.”
Skeptics say that the success of “Cat” and “Raisin” does not prove anything, that celebrity casting is the reason for their strong box office. Mr. Byrd does not entirely disagree, saying that a show has to have the right project and star casting to become what he calls “an event” to African-Americans. Simply having a black actor, like S. Epatha Merkerson in the recently closed production of William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba,” does not necessarily mean a play will become such an event. Time will tell when Clifford Odets’s “Country Girl,” starring Morgan Freeman, and the new “Thurgood,” starring Laurence Fishburne, open next month.
“If I brought ‘Passing Strange’ to Broadway,” Mr. Byrd said of the semi-autobiographical rock musical starring the black musician Stew, now struggling to find audiences at the Belasco Theater, “I would have put Lenny Kravitz in it.”
But as Ms. Parks, who will direct the planned revival of “Fences,” pointed out, going to a show to see a star makes black audiences like, well, just like all the other audiences. The success of the Public’s Central Park productions of “Mother Courage and Her Children” and “The Seagull,” which had people lining up all night for tickets, is hardly discredited because many of them wanted to see Meryl Streep or Natalie Portman. “You think all those people are jonesing to see Bertolt Brecht?” Ms. Parks asked.
And while people can carp about the reasons, it’s hard to argue with the fact that “Cat” is the third Broadway show in four years that has drawn a mostly black audience and stellar business. In an industry where fewer than one in four shows recoup their investments, that is a serious testament to the power of black audiences.
Meanwhile other producers have been calling Mr. Byrd, who, unlike Mr. Binder or Mr. Sanders, is black. They’re curious about his future projects, he said.
“Where were you when I was laboring in the vineyard?” Mr. Byrd asked. “The heavy lifting has been done.”