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‘Scottsboro’ courts black auds

Legit marketers deepen outreach to African American theatergoers

A Broadway musical with a cast made up almost entirely of African-African actors enacting a pre-civil rights tale of injustice? Seems like a natural candidate for outreach to black theatergoers.

But for “The Scottsboro Boys” there’s a catch: The production is presented as a minstrel show. And marketers are finding that with “Scottsboro,” it’s not enough simply to reach out to African-American auds. They need to find ways for the audience to respond to the feelings the show provokes.

“It’s definitely controversial, in the art form that’s being presented,” says marketer Sandie M. Smith, who also has helped engineer multicultural outreach on shows including “The Color Purple” and “Memphis.” “Approaching it in an honest, straightforward way is our best tactic.”

In past decades, legiters often believed black auds wouldn’t turn out for Broadway shows. But that notion has eroded in the wake of hits whose success can be attributed in large part to black turnout: The 2004 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” kicked off a string of successes that has included 2005 tuner “The Color Purple” and last season’s revival of “Fences.”

And as the delicate positioning of “Scottsboro” illustrates, bringing in African-American auds is no more a one-size-fits-all endeavor than selling a show to any other broad demographic of theatergoers.

“There’s no cookie-cutter way of approaching a multicultural audience,” Smith says.

Another current illustration: Daniel Beaty’s Off Broadway solo show “Through the Night.”

Producer Daryl Roth has lined up a number of celebrity “ambassadors” as part of the outreach program, with Bill Cosby touting Beaty at Riverside Church and Henry Louis Gates Jr. talking up the show’s student-ticket funding initiative to the Wall Street Journal.

As with all Off Broadway shows, which are often eclipsed by Main Stem offerings, it can be tough attracting attention.

“It’s only very easy to sell a show to an African-American audience — or to any audience — if you have a really big star, or if it’s a musical,” Roth says.

Like “Night,” “Scotts-boro,” starring Joshua Henry, John Cullum and Colman Domingo, doesn’t count a B.O. draw among its cast.

The tuner, from the songwriting team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, uses the minstrel show format to retell the true story of a 1931 case of nine young black men falsely accused of assaulting two white women.

The minstrel elements act as a narrative frame, similar to the way vaudeville serves as the storytelling medium in Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago.”

“The device is used to sing and dance, really, but it’s a racially charged device,” says helmer Susan Stroman.

Minstrel shows have been used for satirical purposes in the past, with the 2000 Spike Lee film “Bamboozled” the highest-profile example.

For “Scottsboro,” the minstrel trappings, paired with the story of the injustices suffered by the nine long-jailed men, provokes strong feelings from auds.

“People walk out with a very intense conversation,” says book writer David Thompson. “It usually starts up the aisle.”

Those involved in the show add that although the tuner played to packed houses at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater in the spring and had a run over the summer at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, the Broadway auds of the show, which began previews Oct. 7 ahead of an Oct. 31 opening, have proven much more diverse.

As the show developed, an opening number explaining the devices of minstrelsy, “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!,” was added. And so far, vocal objections from the audience have been few, although there’s been at least one heated discussion with a patron.

One of the solutions the “Scottsboro” team has hit on is a beefed-up talkback schedule.

Many Broadway shows offer a post-show discussion once a week, often with production creatives or other community members, but “Scottsboro” is considering scheduling multiple discussions per week to accommodate viewer reaction, along with an online outlet for it as well. (Post-show discussions proved successful at the Guthrie.)

At the same time, though, “Scottsboro” is employing the usual tactics to reach out to potential auds.

And if there’s flak, creatives and producers aren’t backing down. “It’s a controversial piece,” Smith says. “That was the intent.”

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