Don't you dare call it the 'Chitlin Circuit'
It's a weekend night, and Brandi, a honey-skinned, bitty-bodied woman in snakeskin shorts and go-go boots--just one step above hoochie-mama status--is holding forth on the finer points of man-hunting.
While sitting at a nightclub table with her two girlfriends, Cynthia and Brenda, she regales them with sure-fire methods for luring men across the room to sit beside her. With the subtlety of a street-corner 'ho, she slowly crosses and uncrosses her legs while eyeing some fictitious player on the other side of the club.
If that doesn't work, she says, she's got another foolproof scheme. Brandi sticks her finger in her drink and swirls it around. Then she takes it and slides it sl-o-o-o-wly into her mouth, pauses, and removes it with equal savor. Makes men come running, she says.
Cynthia looks at her incredulously. "You're just a nasty little thing, aren't you?" she says.
The audience laughs in agreement. Brandi's sexpot antics aren't for real. But then, much of what's on stage this April night belongs to the surreal. The 1,700-seat Dallas Convention Center Theater has been transformed into The Jam, a fashionable nightclub for the young, black, and well-dressed set. A lighted cityscape rises above the stage, bathing it in a shiny glow.
Brandi, Cynthia, and Brenda are out for a night on the town. The three women are types, from their names to their outfits. Wise-cracking Cynthia is the friendly, noisy one, wearing baggy black pants and a modest blouse. Her honey-blonde hair is piled high in a beehive. Sex-crazed Brandi is the maneater, dressed in skimpy clothes. Her long tresses descend in tousled curls. Preppie Brenda is the classy one, clad in a black miniskirt suit with fur-trimmed jacket and matching hat. Her hair is pulled into a severe bun.
Brandi and Cynthia talk about men--how to find them and keep them, particularly those with money. For Brenda, the conversation is academic. She's got a man--Dominic, a rich, successful singer. She waxes rhapsodic about him.
"I'm just so lucky," she coos to her friends in an ersatz Black American Princess voice.
Brandi won't be satisfied until she snags one for herself. "He's got to have mo-huh-honey," she says, rubbing her fingers together while tossing her hair. "Or it's boom--disappear."
She holds up her palm. "Gimme some credit."
Cynthia slaps her palm. "Credit approved."
As the women continue to talk, the background music cranks up.
Suddenly, there are dancers--seven of them--scantily clad in gold-sequined hot pants, matching cropped jackets, and shiny black go-go boots. They sashay down the aisle straight through the audience, gyrating their hips, snaking their hands, stopping every eight or so steps to allow folks to get a really good look.
Their non sequitur appearance is a trademark flourish for the show's writer, producer, and director, Dallas-born Shelly Garrett. He watches the audience from behind the sound board, nervously gauging their reactions to his latest stage creation, What Kind of Love is This?. He surveys a crowd of his people--mainly black women ages 25 to 54. There are some men there, albeit reluctantly, dragged in by a girlfriend or spouse. Garrett throws in the dancers as a juicy little morsel, just for them.
And they love it. The men hoot and catcall to the dancers, who flirt outrageously with those in the aisle seats. The women love the three female characters, particularly Cynthia, who always comes up with a sharp quip to put Brandi in her place.
It also helps that the show has a big-name star--Jeffrey Osborne--who plays Brenda's boyfriend Dominic. Osborne made his mark as an R&B crooner in the '70s and '80s. When he walked out on stage, dressed in a military-esque outfit with another woman as an accessory, the audience knew two things: They were going to be treated to some hot singing, and there was gonna be trouble--delicious, other-woman trouble.
Garrett's shows live and die by audience reaction. He'll change lines and cut scenes if he doesn't get the raucous response he's always seeking. And he brings all of his traveling stage shows to Dallas to test what works; the city is a good proving ground before he sends a show on a nationwide tour. In Dallas, Garrett says, people will tell you the truth.
"And the truth is, Dallas loved it," he says about his latest play.
But not without a few changes, including losing one song and slashing a long monologue.
Garrett has made his reputation creating this brand of touring comedy play. Commonly called the "Chitlin Circuit," the shows are overwrought and broadly comic, and they feature lines that bear all the nuance of a screeching siren. The characters are types--the sexy one, the friendly one, the dingy one, the strong one, the no-good man. Like its tamer cousin, the gospel play, plots are B-movie standard with twists as big as sailors' knots. It's like watching a low-budget sitcom on stage.
While the crowds cheer, the critics sneer. They decry this supposed dumbing-down of black theater, for which patrons have always been scarce. They wince at the amateur acting, the crude staging, and what they see as a return to minstrel-show sensibilities.
And yet these plays, and hundreds like them, have captured the hearts and dollars of black communities around the country--and have become wildly popular in Dallas, particularly in the last seven years. Dallas has become such a fertile market for these plays that during the spring and fall seasons, at least six such productions will work their way through town.
There's an appealing simplicity to these shows, which bear a hefty $25 to $30 ticket price. The audience knows precisely what it's getting for its money. There is no pretense or hidden agendas here. The message--if there even is one--is always the same: Jesus will save you, and a good woman always wins in the end. There are no efforts to uplift racial consciousness or to provide fodder for philosophical discussion. Garrett's plays exist solely to entertain.
"Everybody in there is grown," Garrett says. "If they don't know stuff by now, who am I to teach it to them? I want you to come in there, take your hair off, put it down there on the seat, take your shoes off, and have the time of your life for two hours."
This isn't the-a-tah but the-A-'er, a place where the ordinary Joe who doesn't know his August Wilson from his Mary Wilson can come in, sit down, and feel comfortable. It is filled with familiar places, like beauty shops, clubs, church, or Mama's living room , and with familiar faces, either in the form of once-famous singers or television stars, or in stock characters. The acting is melodramatic, played for broad reactions and easy laughs. The singing is brassy and arpeggio-filled. The shows rely on huge promotional pushes to fill the house and keep people coming throughout the season.
What Kind of Love is This? is Garrett's latest musical comedy. Osborne treats the audience to a rendition of his 1986 hit You Should Be Mine (the Woo-woo Song). Then he turns to the audience: "Who out there wants to woo-woo for me?"
The crowd cheers, and people stand up to volunteer. Osborne takes a hand-held microphone and works the crowd--getting men, women, and children to sing for him. Most sound like you'd expect, nervous folks with quavering voices. Although there is one woman--the very last singer--whose contralto voice brought many in the audience to their feet. Osborne had to yank the microphone away from her; she nearly upstaged him.
Garrett admits afterward that the woman--his wardrobe mistress--was a plant. He always puts her out in the audience to ensure that at least one woo-wooer can sing. This sort of audience participation helps pack the house.
But for every full house for someone like Garrett, there are empty seats at struggling black community theater groups such as the Jubilee Theater in Fort Worth.
At a recent Jubilee performance, Augusta Peacock holds forth in her sitting room. She and her gossip companions savage those not present in a tone that's a mixture of mock shock and titillation. Their dress is 20th-century Harlem during the Jazz Age--tight sheath dresses, fringed lounge jackets. But the language is 18th-century highbrow.
"Come, come, you are severe upon the widow," says Bennie Backbite in a mock defense of the woman they've been delightedly slandering. "It is not that she paints so ill--but when she has finished her face, she joins it on so badly to her neck that she looks like a mended statue, in which the connoisseur sees at once that the head's modern, though the trunk's antique."
"Well said, nephew," crows his uncle, the Rev. Crabtree.
It hasn't quite the ring of "Gimme some credit." But the sentiments are the same.
Dirty Laundry is based on a 300-year-old English classic by Richard Brinsley Sheridan called The School for Scandal. It's about juicy gossip and its consequences. Jubilee Theater artistic director Rudy Eastman knows that the play--particularly its language--will test the patience of modern audiences. He points this out in a little speech before the beginning of the performance.
"The dialogue will challenge you," he warns. "But if you listen, you will get it."
The audience itself barely fills the 100-seat theater. It is an upscale crowd, conservatively well-dressed. It is also racially diverse--about half of the crowd is white. And they take Eastman's exhortation to heart. They laugh at the funny parts, which are many. They get it.
Like the Garrett play, Dirty Laundry is a broad, overwrought melodrama that resembles in many ways a Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy screwball comedy. The difference is that the actors let the audience in on the joke. The players, some of whom have performed the works of Shakespeare as well as noted black playwright August Wilson, directly address the audience at times during the play, spouting platitudes or giving knowing looks because the script calls for them.
There is no such allowance for irony in Garrett's comedy shows. If these plays edge toward farce at all, it's because of bad scripts, tacky staging, or some truly godawful acting.
But musical comedies like Garrett's--or the equally popular counterpart, gospel shows, also known as "Mama plays"--attract the big crowds. It is a phenomenon that Eastman notes with a bit of envy. Sure, his productions are challenging and artful; but while integrity may bring personal satisfaction, it certainly doesn't put butts in seats.
"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.
"This audience we are catering to wants to hear singing, and they want to get a feel for the show," he says. The shows can't get too "Broadwayish"--meaning too far afield of the black here-and-now.
"These people aren't going to sit up there and watch Cats or Phantom of the Opera," Wash says. "It can't hold their interest."
The circuit-show world is that of the inexperienced: amateur writers, directors, actors, and audiences. Garrett is an example of the novice playwright-director-promoter taking on the task. Garrett, who lived in Dallas until he was nine, wrote his first play after getting a taste of vanity theater. He starred as an actor in the autobiography of Compton millionaire Dootsie Williams, whose company produced Earth Angel. Williams wrote the play. But Garrett says it was poorly written, and hardly anyone showed up. Williams told Garrett that if he thought he could do a better job, to do so--and promptly fired him.
Garrett then wrote Beauty Shop in six days. Beauty Shop told the tale of four hairdressers in the Pamper Me Salon. It incorporated a few tropes that would become classic Garrett: the strong, usually full-figured black female, who takes the brunt of the jokes but wins in the end; a bitchy, sometimes gay character who says what the audience wants; the sexpot; and the reasonable, owner. In Beauty Shop, the full-figured stylist ultimately triumphs, getting the man--a rich, handsome, black gentleman--and the envy of her friends. The strong woman who wins in the end is a tribute to his mother, Garrett says. His mother accompanies him on all of his tours.
The gay character got the best lines, including a trademark snapping of fingers to emphasize a point that has become de rigeur in portrayals of black gay males. Beauty Shop's gay character also sparked the expression, "You all in my Kool-Aid and don't even know the flava!"
Beauty Shop was a monster hit, touring the Los Angeles area for two years before going across the country for another three. Although Garrett won't say how much he made from the show, figures between 15 and 25 million dollars have been bandied about by industry insiders.
Since then, Garrett has written six other plays, and he has two more in the works. None, however, has been as successful as Beauty Shop. That show gave him the name recognition and clout to fill 1,000- to 3,000-seat concert halls without having to sign on a has-been star--because Garrett's name is the marquee draw. He did bow to pressure and sign on Jeffrey Osborne for What Kind of Love is This?, he says, because "people are clamoring for it now."
His other basic formula for success is "production, production, production." Garrett says he makes sure the sets and costumes look terrific. Indeed, in the final wedding scene for What Kind of Love is This?, the dancers wore ankle-length, long-sleeved sequined dresses in various hues. Brenda wore a tight-fitting wedding dress with peek-a-boo cuts on the sides and a huge train.
"My stuff is well done," Garrett says. "My sets aren't thrown together. My shows have a lot of glitz in them. This is real important when you are entertaining an audience. People are tired of that old drudge stuff."
Garrett looks the part of the successful businessman. He's tall and handsome, with a honey-colored complexion and a barely lined face defying his fiftysomething years (he dodged the subject of his exact age, but says he has a 16-year-old daughter). For an interview, he dressed casually in walking shorts, a tank top, and sneakers. The clothes were all brand names. He sported his own bits of glitz: a tasteful gold link chain hung around his neck; and around his wrist, a gold, diamond-encrusted watch.
The circuit is now fairly bursting with plays, something Garrett can take credit for. The success of Beauty Shop and a gospel play called Mamma I Want to Sing sparked a whole new push for product in popular black theater. Would-be writers from around the country are coming up with plays every week, says Wash, the Dallas promoter. Their plays vary among gospel "preachments" with prodigal plots and foot-stomping revival songs; comedy shows with savage dialogue but happy endings; and variety shows that combine the singing with secular comedy.
Wash says there are about 30 shows currently in production nationwide. He says his company, ALW Entertainment, receives five or six calls a week from hopeful writer-directors hoping to bring their shows to Dallas or get Wash to produce it. The box office has spoken loudly, sparking what has amounted to a feeding frenzy within the genre. Garrett laments this increase in product, because it's spoiling the quality.
"Many of them are just about making money," Garrett says.
Making money, of course, is the exact criticism "legitimate" theater people lay at the feet of Garrett.
"The main difference in our plays [and Chitlin Circuit plays] is that our writers are trained to be writers," says King of the New Federal Theater. "Their commitment to the genre is, 'I am going to be a playwright.' It is not 'I am going to make a lot of money and go buy a house, cars, and clothes.'"
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.
"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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter