African-American, Latino shows eye audiences

Are they Broadway stages or Benetton ads?

In the coming weeks, three shows will open with casts that are entirely or nearly all nonwhite. Two furthur productions feature African-American stars in roles that are traditionally played by white thesps.

Is this influx of ethnicity a noteworthy coincidence, or simply a sign that diversity is becoming the Broadway norm?

Producers are paying close attention as they angle to attract the much-sought-after “new ticketbuyers” — younger, more diverse — while also drawing traditional Broadway patrons.

The question is whether the color of a cast dictates the color of the audience or if auds look beyond race when choosing what show to see.

On one hand, some shows are making news because of their ethnic identities.

The revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which begins previews on Feb. 12, is being promoted as the first Broadway production of the play to sport a black cast, producer and director.

And new musical “In the Heights,” skedded to start previews on Valentine’s Day, is the rare show to feature an almost entirely Latin ensemble, not to mention being penned by Latin writers and composers.

If those shows find an audience, their success will likely be seen as proof that Broadway can and should sustain a regular slate of diverse material — an argument bolstered by “The Color Purple” and the hit 2004 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

On the other hand, not all diverse productions are so quickly identified by their ethnicity. Early marketing for “Passing Strange,” which begins previews on Feb. 8, has focused on the show as a “new rock musical,” not “a new rock musical with nothing but black actors, opening during Black History Month.”

In this way, it’s like “The Lion King.” While it’s set in Africa and features a mostly nonwhite cast, the show is more likely to be tagged a family show, a tourist attraction or part of the Disney juggernaut. Its multi-culti influences have never been overlooked, but it has always been embraced as a boundary-free hit.

Somewhere in between these two approaches is the casting of S. Epatha Merkerson in Manhattan Theater Club’s current production of “Come Back, Little Sheba” and Morgan Freeman in the April revival of Clifford Odets’ “The Country Girl.”

Departing from tradition by making the central couple in these 1950 plays a mixed-race union, the color-blind casting could be seen as a boon for equality. But it could also prove that the actors in question are simply famous enough to carry a show.

It’s too early to make grand statements about what these shows mean for Broadway’s cultural and economic future, but the particular concerns of the new productions illuminate how race is (and isn’t) being considered in the present.

For lead producer Stephen Byrd, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is partially a bid to expand Broadway’s African-American audience base.

“We’re marketing across the board, to everybody, as a great American classic,” he says. “But this is also a chance to reach a whole new audience that no longer has to hide out at the Beacon Theater at a Tyler Perry play. Not that I’m belittling his success, but there is a hunger for more serious drama.”

Byrd has been nurturing the idea of a black “Cat” since 1995. He is sending his all-star cast — including James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and Terrence Howard — into Gotham’s black neighborhoods to spread awareness about the production, including a recent appearance at Harlem’s prominent Abyssinian Baptist Church.

“That’s a way to make yourself accessible to the community, to make it clear that this show can be for them,” Byrd says. “People have thought these actors were untouchable, and if we’re going to talk about this as the first African-American production of the play, the community is going to say, ‘Well, where are you? Why haven’t we seen you?’ “

That cast may also give this production its universal appeal. Any theater lover, regardless of race or age, likely would want to see a veteran like Jones or an up-and-comer like recent Oscar nominee Howard.

Comparable strategies have been used for “Color Purple” and “Raisin.”

The former traded on the popularity of Alice Walker’s original novel and the Steven Spielberg film, not to mention the muscle of presenting producer Oprah Winfrey.

The long-running “Purple,” which closes Feb. 24 after more than two years on the boards, has attracted more black ticketbuyers than most Broadway shows combined.

“Raisin” played up the status of cast members Sean Combs, Audra McDonald and Rashad. The replacement casting of “American Idol” alum Fantasia Barrino in the lead role of Celie also gave “Color Purple” a sizeable boost a year into its run.

Conversely, “Passing Strange” has no celebrities, nor is writer-composer-star Stew convinced it will fly with the same demo flocking to “Color Purple.”

” ‘Passing Strange’ is like the black, gay, rock ‘n’ roll cousin of that kind of play,” he says. “When you talk about marketing to African-Americans, the first thing you hear about is talking to church groups, but in our first scene we talk about the damage the church can do.”

He hopes the tuner — a semi-autobiographical tale of a young man’s struggle with his identity — will appeal to a minority audience often left on the fringes.

“I think the outcast, rebellious white youth has been well documented, and I think many people assume that African-American culture is a monolith of respectability,” he says. “But we’ve got our James Deans. We’re not just going to church in lock-step.”

Ultimately, Stew wants the show to reach young people of all colors, or anyone who has felt disenfranchised. Producer Elizabeth McCann says universality will drive the still-developing marketing plan.

“I want people to see a new American musical, because ‘Passing Strange’ is quintessentially an American story,” she says. “Could ‘In the Heights’ make that statement, or is it more appropriate to say it’s a Hispanic musical? I don’t know.”

Jeffrey Seller, a “Heights” producer, is banking on mass appeal. He notes that most of his ad dollars have been spent on broad-base advertising, including television commercials during “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America.” Similar tactics were used to market the show’s Off Broadway run last year.

“Where am I trying to find audience members?” he asks. “In the general theatergoing public.”

He notes that when “In the Heights,” about a Latin clan struggling against gentrification in Gotham’s Washington Heights neighborhood, ran Off Broadway last year, it attracted a large number of Jewish families.

“The Latino community will find ‘In the Heights,’ ” Seller says, “but they will never be more than 25% of our audience. If this show is going to work, it has to reach everyone.”

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