By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"We have often thought, what is it that brings people there?" he says. "In fact, we have had people ask why doesn't Jubilee do some 'good' shows like Shelly Garrett's. It makes me feel a bit strange. I don't particularly like to do minstrel shows."
It is a provocative dichotomy. At a time when black theater figures like Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, and Savion Glover have made strides on Broadway, integrating themselves into major theater companies, there is a growing, utterly separate black theater presence, rejected by critics, embraced by audiences. It is outside the "traditional" road black theater has taken--that of aping white community theaters--and has created its own space.
But this popular theater is not without its controversy. The nonprofit black community theaters have seen their dwindling audiences get siphoned away by these feel-good upstarts. The upstarts challenge the very notion of purposeful, uplifting, inspiring theater.
"I have resigned myself to the fact that the majority of the audience is relatively naive," Eastman says. "The majority of the people who see these shows have had no previous theater experience to compare it to."
Woodie King says he knows what's good for black theater-going audiences, and it isn't cut-down comedies or gut-bucket gospel extravaganzas. King, who has run the New Federal Theater, a black-oriented theater company in New York City, for the last 27 years, complains that these plays are not legitimate forms of theater.
"The producers of these plays are not about to do anything to raise the level of consciousness of the audience," he says.
One catches a whiff of class war from these practitioners of "legitimate" theater. The naive audiences that come to these shows are culled from--as King says--"workers at McDonald's or Wendy's who now can find something they can relate to."
He hastily adds, however, that "I have no problem with that."
But obviously he does. To hear the scholarly and sophisticated tell it, "Chitlin Circuit" theater is destroying the aesthetic of black people. The dismissive term first came up in the February 3 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote an exhaustive--and exhausting--piece on the comedy theater form, calling it the '90s recreation of the old Chitlin Circuit minstrel shows. That circuit dates back to the 1920s, when the Theater Owners Booking Association brought plays and other bits of entertainment to black audiences throughout the South and Midwest, according to Ed Bullins, a playwright and teacher at Northeastern University in Boston.
The circuit had a reputation for low pay and terrible working conditions, so its initials TOBA came to stand for "Tough on Black Asses." The circuit died out in the latter part of the '20s, but the notion of black touring companies never really went away.
Gates' appellation appears to have stuck, bandied about by outsiders as the proper term for the touring gospel and comedy shows.
But for those in it, the term is an insult.
"Look, Beauty Shop did $600,000 a week in New York," says Garrett of his biggest box-office hit, first staged in 1988. "That's a lot of chitlins. These plays cater to an African-American audience, period. Why does it have to be called 'chitlins'?"
Much of the reproof toward these shows stems from what educated critics deem shoddy craftsmanship. The writers and directors--often the same person--have no notion of such theater staples as staging or character development, and the plots are predictable. The shows either resemble an Aesop's Fable or blaxploitation television shows.
"I don't call them theater, I call them entertainment," says Vicki Meek, director of the South Dallas Cultural Center. "The people who are in them often are not trained actors; the story lines are as trite as they can be. It's not artistic."
The shows can be bad. At one point in What Kind of Love is This?, Dominic decides he has to kill Brenda because he thinks she's having an affair. He raises the knife to kill her, but the blade looks more like a barbecue skewer than a lethal weapon. The audience laughs raucously at this intended tragic moment.
And yet, there are times when the effect is sublime. When the dancers come on stage during What Kind of Love is This?, the dirty old man type, called Pops, falls all over himself trying to get a closer look. Eventually he dances with them, a wild Michael Jackson-like routine. The audience adores it and cheers wildly.
Perhaps this isn't studied art, but these circuit plays can be viewed as a kind of folk art--the rough, unpolished creations of untrained artists. It's people making art for the people they know, and these days, primitive or "outsider" art is displayed in major museum collections throughout the country.
Comedy-show impresarios admit they may not have the same pedigree as trained and degreed playwrights, but their product is artful in its own way.
"I think what I do is artistic," Garrett says. "It is within the standards of what we want to see."
What the audience wants are simple tales with happy endings, says Al Wash, a Dallas-based promoter for circuit shows. The shows generally need a recognizable lead for box-office success--either an out-of-work singer or an actor from an old sitcom.