Broadway's expanding palette

Three new works starring African-Americans are opening in the next two months.

This spring, Broadway is looking more like the city it inhabits - diverse. Works by or about African-Americans - the musical "Caroline, or Change," and dramas "Drowning Crow" and "A Raisin in the Sun" - are all slated to open in the next two months. They'll join Pulitzer Prize-winning "Anna in the Tropics," about Cuban émigrés, and long-running musicals with black cast members, "The Lion King" and "Aida."

Theatergoers today typically have to go to venues well beyond the neon lights of Times Square to find plays that address modern cultural struggles and ideas that aren't set to music. The triptych of African-American tales spanning the post-World War II era to the present will temporarily add more color to Broadway's palette, but along the way may also prompt a discussion about what really constitutes diversity on US theater's most high-profile road.

"In my opinion, it's unusual for there to be three plays on Broadway that deal with the lives of African-Americans. I don't think that that's often happened," says Alfred Preisser, artistic director at the Classical Theater of Harlem. "I'm not sure it signifies anything other than a coincidence. Hopefully, it means that ... the Broadway theater is becoming more diverse as a reflection of our society."

The plays in question share some universal themes - the desire to move up in the world, to have more money, or more career recognition. But they also have something else in common: They're all rooted in the past. "A Raisin in the Sun" and "Caroline, or Change" cover aspects of black life the '50s and '60s, and "Drowning Crow," despite being set in the present, is based on a 100-year-old play, "The Seagull," by Anton Chekhov.

That's the observation of Arthur French, one of the original cast members of the Negro Ensemble Company. He is supportive of the productions, but points out that in his view, none of them grows out of current African-American experience. "I don't know ... what relevancy they have," he says. "They don't seem to me to have anything to do with black people. Period. None of them ... speak to our lives today."

Based on his experience with the NEC in the 1970s, French says contemporary African-American voices used be more present on Broadway. Many of the NEC's plays made the jump, including "The First Breeze of Summer" and "The River Niger." Even a play he's doing now at the Harlem Theatre Company, "OBATALA," about African mythology, has more relevance than what's being offered today, he says.

His point isn't unique to works starring African-Americans. Broadway is full of revivals and shows that are based on movies or set to old pop music, as producers look for ways to fill seats. They leave the experimenting to those in Off-Broadway and regional theaters. It is in those venues, says French, where plays about contemporary black issues are more common.

The latest round of plays does, however, mean that African-American actors, sometimes scarce on Broadway, are getting more work. And in many cases, the same principle guiding everything from "The Producers" to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" - that star power sells tickets - may be responsible for them making it onto a Broadway marquee at all. Emmy winner Alfre Woodard is starring as the matriarch in "Drowning Crow," which opens next week. Actress Audra McDonald is slated to appear opposite Sean "P. Diddy" Combs in the revival of "Raisin," scheduled for an April opening. And Phylicia Rashad ("The Cosby Show") recently starred in an Off-Broadway play written by a young black playwright.

Even those who question the acting chops of Mr. Combs, a rapper, say that casting him is probably a good way to bring people into the theater.

"Like anyone in the theater, [I have] somewhat mixed feelings, because he's not someone that you think of as a stage actor," says Mr. Preisser. But "I don't think he's fooling around, and so I'm just going to tip my hat to him, because maybe the production wouldn't even be happening otherwise."

In defense of his star, producer David Binder told Newsday that Combs - who has previously acted in films, including "Monster's Ball" - impressed those in charge of casting.

Casting rappers isn't the only gutsy move relating to the new plays. "Drowning Crow" director Marion McClinton says staging a play like his is also a step away from the norm. "Broadway's not known for doing dramas with huge casts, [and] they're definitely not known for doing dramas with huge African-American casts," he says, noting there are 13 actors in the play.

Contrary to what French says about "Crow" lacking modern relevance, Mr. McClinton says it's important for this play to be done now. "There's a lot of talk right now in the national circuit about values, about morality, and I think this play raises these issues in a very honest and straightforward manner: What's it like to be young now? What do you owe the generation before you, what do you owe the generation behind you?"

There are parallels to that play and the revival of "Raisin," scheduled to open mid-April. Lorraine Hansberry's play about the class struggles of a Chicago family debuted on Broadway in 1959 and was the first to be written, directed, and acted by African-Americans. French calls "Raisin" a brilliant work, but a "safe" choice. Interestingly, in "Drowning Crow," Ms. Taylor gives the young man at the heart of the play a line about "Raisin" as it relates to his mother's work: "All I see in her theater is the same o' same o' ... When they've crammed the same old thing down my throat for the thousandth time - The same old 'Raisin in the Sun' over and over again, then see this black boy run."

"Caroline, or Change," also deals with black history. Written by Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"), it's moving to Broadway after a successful off-Broadway run. The story of a black maid trying to make ends meet while working for a Jewish family in 1960s New Orleans includes milestones like President Kennedy's death. "It's an American play, but it's not particularly black," says James Hatch, coauthor of "A History of African American Theatre." But, he adds, it is unique in at least one way. "It's an integrated play, and we don't get too many of those."

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