Obama visit flags dearth of black plays

What message did President send by seeing 'JT'?

What does a sitting U.S. president tell us by attending a Broadway play?

The contempo examples are so few that it’s easy to speculate:

Was John F. Kennedy looking to boost his profile after a close election when he went to see “The Best Man” in 1961? Did Richard Nixon want to send a signal about the encroaching Watergate scandal by going to “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Winter Garden in 1973?

Now jump forward 36 years to May 30, when Barack and Michelle Obama attended the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The 2008-09 legit season has been lauded as one of the best in recent memory, so Mr. and Mrs. President had a lot of good shows to choose from.

So how did they decide on “JT,” a play about newly freed slaves trying to find work in the North in the year 1911? What message did they want to send?

Actually, “JT” actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson and her husband, Samuel L., hosted Michelle Obama at their Beverly Park home for a fund-raiser last September. Otherwise, who knows? The first couple might have taken in one of the season’s two biggest hits, “Billy Elliot,” but that’s British. Or “God of Carnage,” but that’s French. Instead, our first African-American president kept it domestic and bought $96.50 tix to a homegrown play that’s African-American in its cast, authorship and subject matter. Symbolic, indeed, especially in a week that also saw the president nomming the first Latina for the Supreme Court.

But sitting on the aisle in row K at the Belasco Theater on May 30, did Obama know just how significant this “JT” is? Before the election, he promised his wife to take her to a Broadway show in the new year. He couldn’t have known then that “JT” would be the 2008-09 season’s only African-American show; that of the 43 productions to open the season, none were directed by an African-American; that the sole African-American actor to be nominated for a Tony (out of 40 nominees) is featured actor Roger Robinson, from “JT”; and, most staggering, that no original play or musical in 2008-09 tapped the talents of an African-American scribe, lyricist or composer.

Then again, when the President and Mrs. Obama hosted “an evening celebrating poetry, music and the spoken word” at the White House last month, the only Broadway figures performing in the East Room were both persons of color: James Earl Jones and Lin-Manuel Miranda of “In the Heights.”

Such racial symbolism first emerged at Obama’s inauguration with the perf of John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts,” which featured Anthony McGill, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Gabriela Montero.

“Look at that in terms of diversity!” says Sharon Jensen, exec director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. “It was a very important moment for the arts in America, as was the Obamas’ going to ‘Joe Turner.’ ”

Exposure for African-Americans on Broadway, especially in plays, is somewhat less pronounced and has always lagged.

As the former Actors’ Equity exec director Alan Eisenberg used to put it, those jobs depend on whether or not August Wilson writes a new play. But Wilson is now dead. In his tenure as producer at the Public Theater, director George C. Wolfe transferred a few works, most recently “Topdog/Underdog” and “Caroline, or Change,” to Broadway. But Wolfe now spends more time helming films and TV.

“I would be happy if we didn’t have to talk about black playwrights or Hispanic playwrights, and Broadway were just an American place for theater,” says Charlotte St. Martin, prexy of the League of American Theaters & Producers.

Granted, not talking about it would be easier. The league, together with Actors’ Equity, keeps stats on minority employment — “for internal uses,” says Equity’s current exec director, John P. Connolly — and it can’t be pretty.

Connolly expresses disappointment that Robinson is the only Tony-nommed African-American thesp this year but offers a caveat: “No two theatrical seasons are alike.” Certainly the 2007-08 season was more diverse with “Passing Strange,” the all-black “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and a racially mixed “Cymbeline.”

“There has been a steady march forward for African-American artists,” Connolly contends.

If the Obamas return to Broadway, they may have more to choose from in 2009-10.

This week’s revival of “The Wiz” at Encores! is a possible transfer. But as with the “Joe Turner” redux, its helmer is not an African-American.

More encouraging, the Society of Stage Directors & Choreographers discloses that it has contracts for at least two African-American helmers, Sheldon Epps and Kenny Leon, to work on such long-gestating Broadway projects as “Ray” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” respectively. Whether those materialize or go the way of the scuttled 2008 revival of “For Colored Girls” remains to be seen.

Also being readied for a Broadway transfer is Bill T. Jones’ acclaimed production of “Fela!,” based on the life of Nigerian activist-songwriter Fela Ransome Kuti, which stages at workshop/backers’ audition this month. Its producers are looking outside the usual Broadway pool, with Beyonce, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys reported to be potential investors.

Off Broadway, Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined” has done well in its nonprofit berth at MTC, but this drama about sexual slavery in the Congo is the only Pulitzer Prize-winning play in modern history not to enjoy either a Broadway or a commercial Off Broadway run.

“Doing extended programming is comparable to a commercial Off Broadway production,” says MTC’s exec director Barry Grove. “In this economy, it’s good to keep it running (until Aug. 2).” Which will bring the “Ruined” run to an impressive 29 weeks at a 299-seat house. The Obamas’ Broadway visit is a victory lap of sorts. In September 2007, “Hairspray” producer Margo Lion put together a fund-raiser for the then-presidential hopeful at the New Amsterdam Theater that essentially introduced him to the theater community. Now with Obama’s “JT” turn, Connolly opines, “It gives us an opening to establish a dialogue with the president over some extremely important questions regarding the arts, especially the theater arts.”

Clearly, Broadway sees a friend in the White House. (And who better than a rock-star prexy to make theatergoing cool again?) Now it’s up to legit producers to make sure that Obama sees actor, writer and helmer friends on the stages of the Great White Way to keep that dialogue going.