By Jim Schutze
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Gospel plays have been among the most popular plays on the circuit. Joe Meachum, owner of IAG Theater Group in Washington, D.C., says this may have something to do with conservative black churchgoers' ambivalence toward other forms of entertainment--such as movies and concerts. Meachum has produced six gospel shows since 1990, including Mamma Don't and Wicked Ways, which grossed nearly $30 million and toured three years collectively. He admits there's a definite formula for good gospel shows: great singing, great dialogue, and a great title. His favorite: My Grandmother Prayed for Me.
"The title was astronomical," he says. "We would wear T-shirts in the airport with that on them, and everybody would stop and ask about them. Everyone has had a praying grandmother to some extent."
Shows on the circuit also benefit from a huge marketing push--based on radio ads, handbills, and word of mouth. Wash, who promotes the shows in Dallas, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and other big cities on the circuit, considers himself a typical audience member. He had never even seen a play until Curtis King at the Junior Black Academy of Arts and Letters (JBAAL) asked him to come see Stomping at the Savoy, a musical revue of jazz and blues songs. He realized then that theater could be fun--as well as profitable--if promoted correctly.
"It is a new form of entertainment," Wash says of the circuit. He began his promotional career 20 years ago in Dallas, pushing college football games and concerts. "It is something that people can relate to," he says.
Dallas gets its shows in a season that runs from September through December, as well as a few weeks in spring. The plays come to either the Dallas Convention Center Theater or the Majestic Theatre downtown. Wash says his company spends, on average, between $40,000 and $60,000 on promotion.
That kind of money could fund a black community theater for an entire season, says Beth Turner, publisher and editor of Black Masks, a magazine about the national black theater scene.
"They are making googabs of money," she says. "That money could support lots of black theater. And the money isn't going back into black theater--into training more writers or directors."
It's an issue of style as well as substance. These Chitlin Circuit shows are candy, says the South Dallas Cultural Center's Meek. People go to them because they're sweet and easily digestible. The audience expends no effort to "get" the show, and there's always a happy ending.
"It's a question of how we want to feel when we leave the theater," she says. "A lot of what our story is in this country is painful. And people don't want to be reminded of that. So, if they can go and see something that will make them laugh and forget, they are going to opt to do it."
Escapism, however, may be a legitimate need. But within the rarefied environs of black community theater, that need seldom gets any sympathy.
The thought isn't lost on Jubilee's Eastman.
When he formed the Fort Worth-based nonprofit theater company 15 years ago, its founding principle was to give local black actors and writers performance time. It was black theater for black people, by black people. And yet, those people rarely visit Jubilee's theater space in the heart of Sundance Square.
"It's been one agonizing individual at a time," Eastman admits.
The 100-seat theater just can't compete against the promotional juggernauts that bring to town plays like Garrett's. Jubilee faces budget constraints typical of all nonprofit theater companies.
The Jubilee prides itself on presenting a variety of plays--from reconstituted classics to newly commissioned works. They are all lovingly staged in the tiny space, using creatively built sets and actors and actresses culled from throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And still, the best he gets is a diverse, half-filled house.
There were two times when Jubilee did pack them in, filling seats and holding over plays by popular demand. Both times, they were for gospel shows. The first was in 1988, when Jubilee presented God's Trombones. Last year, The Book of Job was the hot seller, setting all sorts of records for the theater, including longest run, at 12 weeks. The theater still sells audio cassettes of the performance. In some ways, Eastman has learned a lesson from the circuit shows.
"We know these performances are cash cows," Eastman says. "They are something the audience wants to see, and they hold crossover appeal."
Money is the subtext running through much of this debate about theater genres. There has always been the notion that the true artist suffers; that craft takes time. Legitimate theater is about compulsion, says Turner of Black Masks. "It's an artist sitting down and saying, this is what I have to write in order to express myself, in order to open up a window for people to understand what is going on in this society."
But this hoity-toity sense of aesthetic superiority has long held sway in the theater, and it has failed, says Bullins of Northeastern University. Black people don't attend plays precisely because they're made to feel as though the art form is above them.