Don't you dare call it the 'Chitlin Circuit'

With their sequined dancers, cardboard characters, and savage beauty-shop banter, Shelly Garrett's comedy plays don't get any respect from critics. But black Dallas knows better.

"Chitlin Circuit plays appeal to the black masses, the people who wouldn't...feel comfortable with the sorts of plays emulating middle-class values," he says. Besides, he says, "many times, those plays are boring."

Curtis King of the JBAAL, a private nonprofit that brings many of the circuit shows to Dallas, dismisses all of the intellectual posturings about this form of theater. Black people who come to these shows bring their own life experiences and interpretations. The story lines may be weak by classical standards, but that doesn't make the genre any less legitimate.

"We have to be careful that we don't become so intellectual that we alienate ourselves from the people we're trying to reach," he says.

As artistic director for the JBAAL, he's brought many gospel and comedy shows to the Convention Center Theater over the past 10 years. They usually sell out. The JBAAL also does more highbrow stuff--but it's staged in the smaller Cafe Theater, which seats 250.

King confesses that he once pooh-poohed gospel shows. But one day, he got a revelation watching the audience. He noticed people laughing and crying during the performance. Those who'd come toting heavy burdens were noticeably lighter by intermission.

"It was like a cure for them," King says. "It was almost like an angel appeared to these people. People were paying to feel better. It was like they went to a doctor."

Black playwrights can suffer from what could be called the August Wilson disease. Wilson, the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, is the epitome of the successful black playwright who appeals to integrated audiences. His shows have appeared on Broadway, won awards, and garnered him widespread critical acclaim. Yet the average black person doesn't know who he is and has never seen one of his plays.

To Garrett, that's a sad statement. Acclaim from the pens of critics has never been his aim. It has always been the pull of the people.

"The box office is my critic," he says.
And the box office has decreed that escapism sells. Music and comedy have the best chances for longevity. Look at Broadway, King says. The longest-running shows are musical comedies.

"If you work all day standing on your feet as a cook, or cleaning someone's house, or working in a bank or a mechanic's shop, when you're ready to go out, you don't want to go out and be reminded of all that," he says. "You want to somehow be removed from all of it. Music and comedy have a way to transport people to a different place."

The crowd walking out of the Dallas Convention Center Theater one cool April night is talkative, and at once both glamorous and familiar. Their fashion ranges from baggy funk to conservative suits and the occasional sequined accessory. These patrons of the theater stand out because of their fashion sense, as well as the fact that most are black.

Some members of the predominantly female crowd giggle to themselves as they repeat lines from the show. "Gimme some credit!" shouts one woman to her friend, holding up her palm.

"Credit approved," says her friend, slapping her a high-five.
They appear happy, relatively satisfied with this performance of Garrett's What Kind of Love is This?.

"There was a lot of truth in it," says Regina Smith of Arlington. "A lot of people don't realize you sometimes have to watch your girlfriends."

Her friend, Phyllis Smith of Mesquite, also liked the show, comparing it favorably to Beauty Shop, which she'd also seen. This is her theater.

"It's black entertainment," Smith says.
If this debate between the two theater forms serves any purpose, perhaps it is two-fold. First, it helps to dispel the myth of the monolithic black community. There's an inherent implication that just because something is done by black people and for black people, that all black people will embrace it. Instead, like their many hues, black people have differing tastes in theater.

It also shows that theater can be inclusive. People who would never have thought of going to see a show now know there's something out there for them. Yes, it's candy rather than meat, but perhaps after these samples, some will decide to see what else is available.

At least, that is what the Jubilee's Eastman hopes.
"People assumed you had to be really pooh-pooh, nah-nah to go to theater," he says. "That attitude has kept a lot of mainstream, regular Joes away from the theater. What Shelly and all these other guys are doing--bless their hearts--is saying that the possibility of theater exists for the regular Joe.

"Which ultimately might benefit me.

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