I remember writing a piece last year sharing my excitement for the upcoming 2015-2016 Broadway season. I was so optimistic, hopeful and amped because there were going to be so many shows starring some of my favorite Broadway Black actors. So many shows where there wasn’t going to just be one black actor in a cast of 30.
We had The Color Purple, Eclipsed, Hughie, Shuffle Along, Hamilton, The Gin Game, Amazing Grace, Motown (technically a 2016-2017 production) to join The Lion King and Kinky Boots.
I would walk down 45th street with the hugest grin on my face. Despite living deep in Bed-Stuy, I made the trek to 45th street as often as I could, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Literally, I remember tearing up seeing all those marquees down 45th street. What a time to be alive, I thought.
Everything was great! Tony Awards came around most of my favorites were nominated, nothing could go wrong! Fast forward to now, and well it’s no secret that 45th or Broadway, in particular, isn’t looking as colorful as it was in, let’s say, March. Of the new Broadway shows to open the 2015-2016 season only, The Color Purple and Hamilton remain. As for the others, we’ve had to say tearful goodbyes to them. Some that are gratefully moving on to productions in other cities, some that had to have limited runs, some that closed for financial reasons and some that didn’t deserve to close at all.
Now, I will say this, I am fully aware that Broadway is a for-profit business I really, and truly am aware of this harsh, often sad reality and I get it – s*** happens. That does not, however, stop me from feeling a type of way about particular shows closing especially shows that involve actors of color because HELLO WE ARE BROADWAY BLACK. This is literally our platform, to highlight shows in ways they may not otherwise get the attention. We are here to help avoid getting actors of colors names wrong, or mixing up names with pictures, or finding the worst possible picture to put up of an actor, or highlight the upcoming playwrights, directors, actors, designers that otherwise may not get the platform. That’s literally why we exist. So one can’t help but to feel a type of way when it seems the rug has been pulled from under this magical carpet ride we’ve been experiencing.
Each show has a different circumstance for leaving and I know you are probably tired of talking about it and I said I wouldn’t, but I can’t help myself. Shuffle Along shouldn’t have closed. It should still be around. Shuffle Along should have played longer. Could it have sustained financially? Maybe. So its numbers were no Hamilton, but have you seen the grosses for some of the other shows around (sips teas)? Check those out, then get back to me. I can’t begin to express the importance of a show like Shuffle.
I don’t know if George C. Wolfe could have predicted that America would be in the state it is in right now, but Shuffle Along came at such a convenient time. However as convenient as it was, the problem was Shuffle wasn’t popular enough. That and the producer that shall not be named, but we know who I’m talking about, is terrible.
Sure it had big names attached but I didn’t think that mattered for this show (no matter how much people want to blame it on certain people), it’s what it stood for that mattered most. I will be frank here, Broadway audiences weren’t ready for Shuffle Along. Just like they weren’t ready 6 years ago with Scottsboro Boys. Sure people were outraged when news of the show closing went viral on social media. So many people were outraged and upset because they felt the story was important and needed to be told. However, I don’t think there were as many of those people we’d like to think. When you have tons of people returning tickets because one person isn’t in the show, it’s kinda safe to say they weren’t there for the story, which is a complete and utter shame.
It’s also expected. I’m generalizing a bit here, but for the majority of Broadway audiences, I still think Broadway is an escape. Audiences like their Broadway light hearted with a touch of sadness to make us cry at the theater and then go home and feel good. To go and have a drink and talk about what a lovely show we saw. Shuffle wasn’t one of those shows. Shuffle made you think, it was a legitimate history lesson.
Something I’ve noticed Broadway doesn’t do well is have these difficult discussions about these plaguing issues like racial politics for example. It gets people talking for sure, but people are really uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. And that goes beyond Broadway, look at what’s happening in America now? If we’re afraid to have these tough conversations in real time, what happens when we put it into our art?
Audiences came to Shuffle with the expectation to see some of the biggest stars on Broadway singing beautifully and to see the best tap dancing around, what they didn’t expect was for it to be laced with themes of appropriation, colorism, defiance and a “joyous rage.” They don’t want to hear about Gershwin stealing a riff from black composer William Grant Still, they don’t want to watch black actors don blackface, they don’t want to talk about how even after what seemed to be success the history of Shuffle Along would fall into obscurity because it’s uncomfortable. It hits a nerve we don’t want to yet talk about.
Shuffle Along was extremely ambitious and everyone involved knew this which is why night after night they poured their hearts and souls into it. Sadly, that just wasn’t enough. After all I’m still convinced black shows do well when exploiting our pain or plight, ironically which Shuffle Along points out “they love to see our love of dixie and watermelon but not our love of each other.” Shuffle Along dared to challenge the status quo and I saw it as the most liberating show I’ve ever seen on Broadway. As I watched Shuffle play its final show on Sunday, I couldn’t help but connect what these characters were saying to the context of today (Let’s talk about that Baton Rouge/gun line huh?) and how pretty much it’s happening all over again.
Call me upset or bitter, all which I very much am, but I would be foolish to not acknowledge that I’m grateful this show was able to come to life at all. I think I’ve said it a million times this story was needed, it was important. I thank God that he brought Shuffle Along into my life when he did because this was the show I didn’t know I needed. It forced me to research more to become a better researcher, artist, teacher, future theater owner and producer. This show filled me with so much hope that I needed and I couldn’t be more grateful. It just sucks that those who weren’t fortunate enough to make it to NYC these last five months, aren’t able to see all that it was. However, unlike the song “They Won’t’ Remember You” this time with Shuffle, there are hundreds of thousands that will never forget this work, and I can’t wait to see it resurface again in the future. (This time maybe with more producers of color and maybe a black theater owner !!)
Even in the midst of our tearful goodbyes, we still have hope in what we do have such as Hamilton which is still crushing it night after night and we can’t wait till Brandon takes over as Burr! The Color Purple is still solid which I’m grateful for because that show is a revelation. We have a few shows opening next season such as Jitney (FINALLY!) , Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 starring Denee Benton, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory ( looking to cast an African-American as Violet), and who knows what else (Fingers crossed they can go ahead and bring the LA production of Ma Rainey this way). I just hope 2015-2016 wasn’t a fluke, but looking at this next season it sure is looking like one.
I say this because I grew up loving Broadway and everything about it. Therefore like James Baldwin says about America ” I love Broadway more than anything and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
This is my critique, do better Broadway. I know you can, you’ve proven you can, just do better.
Sound off below! What were your favorites from the season? What were you sad to see go?