Friday, December 2, 2011

How come Lynn Nottage is not on Broadway?

History is being made on Broadway this season. For the first time EVER, three African-American women playwrights are being produced on the Great White Way at the same time. I made this observation months before the New York Times acknowledged the occurrence on this blog and on my Black Theater Online e-newsletter.

I say all praises, ashé, amen, hallelujah and whoo hoo for Katori Hall, Lydia Diamond and Suzan Lori Parks. Hall and Diamond are newcomers to the Broadway party with their plays The Mountaintop and Stick Fly, respectively. Parks has been invited to the dance before with her Pulitzer Prize winner Topdog/Underdog. She has written the book for the re-imagined musical theater production of the opera Porgy and Bess. Gershwin's Porgy and Bess will make its Broadway debut in a few short weeks.

While I embrace and celebrate the amazing groundbreaking work of these African-American women on Broadway, I find myself completely dumbfounded by the fact that the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage has not yet had her Broadway debut.

Why? How come? What is up with that?

The last four Nottage stage plays produced Off Broadway -- Intimate Apparel, Fabulation, Or The Re-Education of Undine; Ruined, and By the Way, Meet Vera Stark -- were hits with critics and at the box office. Additionally, the plays won many awards including the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Nottage can claim the successful playwright check list: Financial success – Check! Critical acclaim – Check! And a ton of accolades – Check!

I have a thought. Lynn Nottage has not made it to Broadway because she writes about black women. Why else would a play like Ruined, which won every major theater prize, was extended nine times and ran for nine months not transfer to Broadway? It could have run longer, but the producer, the Manhattan Theatre Club, had to begin its new season. Imagine my surprise when I heard that this Pulitzer Prize winning play could not find the financing to move to Broadway for a limited engagement. Potential investors asked, “Who/where is the audience for this show?” WHAAAAT? This is an important question. However, Ruined ran for nine months in front of sold out audiences. Once MTC’s large white subscriber base witnessed the beautiful play, its audience became more diverse, consisting of whites, African-Americans, Africans, women, and students. Small and large multi-generational groups of African American and African women especially, came to see women who looked like themselves onstage.

Most plays produced in the theater are about men. However, the audience is largely comprised of women. That said, wouldn’t it make sense that a woman who writes about women would find a welcome audience among women? I think so.

I believe that any play by Nottage would make a major impact on Broadway. However, I have some friends who believe that her Intimate Apparel, which starred the sublime Viola Davis off Broadway in 2004, should bow on Broadway for a limited engagement and again feature the talents of Ms. Davis. The two-time Tony winner and Oscar nominee is sure to be nominated for every film-acting award for her knock out performance in The Help. Broadway loves movie stars – especially ones who are at home onstage. Davis definitely fits that description! They also want Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe to direct. Wolfe can make a reading of the telephone book seem engaging, engrossing and exciting. Intimate Apparel has an interracial supporting cast and that opens the door for intriguing casting possibilities and a diverse audience.

It is time for Lynn Nottage to make her Broadway debut. Is Intimate Apparel the right choice? Award winning play – Check! Movie star – Check! World-class director – Check! All-star supporting cast – Check! Clearly defined audience for box office success – Check!

Is anyone listening? One can only hope -- Or begin the campaign.

One More Thing: 2011-2012 is not the year of the Black presence on Broadway

The current Broadway season has been lauded in some corners of the media – especially black media -- as the year of an extraordinary presence of African Americans on the Great White Way.

This proclamation is not quite true. Let's take a look at the last five or six years. Since 2005, the productions such as The Color Purple, Sarah Jones Bridge and Tunnel, Hot Feet, Gem of the Ocean, Radio Golf, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, FELA!, Memphis, Race, Ragtime, 110 In The Shade, Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, Thurgood, Passing Strange, The Scottsboro Boys, and Sister Act have featured the talents of many African Americans onstage and behind the scenes. The productions have run simultaneously or within the same season showcasing big film stars returning to their stage roots, reliable theater veterans and breakthrough performances. Long running productions such as The Lion King and Chicago continue to provide ongoing employment for African Americans. And how can we forget Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Bill T. Jones and Darryl Waters all winning Tony Awards in 2010?

The best kept secret about the black presence on Broadway is contained within its biggest hit, The Book of Mormon. The musical, created by the forces behind the South Park television show, won nine Tony Awards including Best New Musical in 2011. What is the secret? Half the cast is African American, including Nikki M. James who won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

With all that being said, 2011-2012 is clearly NOT the year of an extraordinary number of Black folks on Broadway. What is extraordinary? The visions of three African American women playwrights are being produced on Broadway -- the pinnacle of American commercial theater.


  1. Marcia, thanks for this excellent and insightful post. I had also wondered why Intimate Apparel didn't transfer right to Broadway either when as you pointed out it was a big hit for RTC (who can't seem to find another Black playwright to produce although "Blue" by Charles Randolph Wright was another box office bonanza for them too). It is overdue for a Broadway run and with Viola Davis repeating her knockout performance and directed by George Wolfe, or how about a lesser known director who would do an equally good job! Lydia Fort, Seret Scott (who directed an excellent production of Intimate Apparel at The Two River Theater in NJ in the fall of 2010), Liesl Tommy, or even Phylicia Rashad!

    It always boggles the mind when investors ask who/where is the audience because they only do that whenever it is convenient or when it suits their fancy. Where is the audience for any show? I would love to answer that question in front of the investors. I guess Ruined and Intimate Apparel played in front of empty audiences through each extension!!!

    Thanks for not leaving out Book of Mormon, the controversial hit musical. As you pointed out, technically it's not a "Black" show, but does feature one of the largest number of Black casts second to Lion King. It's interesting that certain people were so critical of The Scottsboro Boys and the representation of Black people in that production, but when it comes to Book of Mormon, this same group is quiet and from what I understand (I haven't seen it), the portrayal of the "Africans" is not that flattering and very problematic. I guess people see what they want to see...

    Lastly, since you put it out there re: your hopes for a Broadway run of Intimate Apparel, I wonder when the powers that be select movies and books to adapt for the stage, why Black themed projects are largely absent. I want to put it out there too that I would love to see a musical theater adaptation of Spike Lee's Mo Betta Blues, a stage to screen adaptation of The Five Heartbeats, a stage to screen adaptation of Polly (Debbie Allen's remake of Pollyanna for Disney since they are so obsessed with adapting their animated and live action movies) and what about Lady Sings the Blues for the stage?; what happened to the long gestating musical theater version of Women of Brewster Place?; Eve's Bayou, The Learning Tree... the list goes on...

  2. I feel like everything you said is valid. African American women in theatre are a common irregularity. While there are some examples of African American women starring in roles on Broadway, obviously there can be a lot more. There are just so many stories to tell and relationships to discovery that there is no reason why there aren’t more roles for Black Females. Some feel like these stories are not commercially viable for Broadway but I happen to disagree. Personally, I believe the main problem is that we, as African American women, can complain and complain about the lack of roles for African American women but that does not do anything. We put too much stock in producers to procure work for African American woman, when the majority of producers are not African American women. Producers generally are attracted to work that they can relate to. It’s human nature and also producing is a large gamble with a low chance of return. So it’s safer to take a chance on something they know. With that being said if we want to see work starring African American woman like Lynn Nottage's work on Broadway then it's our responsibility to come together as a collective group and make it happen. I feel like actors cannot simply be actors anymore, especially in the African American community. We must all contribute to facilitate black work. It’s not enough and I don’t believe it was ever enough to just be an actor, writer or director….everyone needs to do at least one other thing in the theatre to get things going. What we really need is procure and produce work we want to see. It’s our civic responsibility as black people to tell our stories. How else will our children learn the complex and dynamic history that is Black History. Once the show gets on Broadway, from there it’s all about marketing... African American theatre needs to be sold differently and reach a different and diverse demographic. Black people need to want to come to NYC to see these works and the Middle Class Theatre Go-er needs to want to see this kind of theatre instead of other shows that lack this type of diversity. I know I’m rambling a bit…but my point is that if we want to see a Lynn Nottage play on Broadway then we need to form production companies and then market the show correctly. Yes this is over simplified but I really do think this is the way to go.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I thought "Ruined" as one of the best new American plays in years. While I'm happy for Ms. Parks, Ms. Hall and Ms. Diamond, Lynn Nottage's absence on a Broadway stage is truly mystifying to me. She's a prolific, gifted American writer very near the peak of her powers. What are people waiting for?