Doug Ward: On Black audiences/White audiences
GE: Let’s talk today about audiences. Black audiences, white audiences and how you perceive them.
DTW: If you’re talking about the NEC and how that breaks down it’s something like this. 20 to 30% of our regular audience over a given time will be white. Over a season let’s say. That numerical quotient or percentage will increase based on the assist of the opinion makers’ enthusiasm for a particular show. Therefore with A Soldier’s Play we’ll see an increase, with Home the same thing. Whenever the opinion makers’ establishment is strong enough in its enthusiasm you will see an increase of the white public to this core perhaps somewhere between 25 to 35%more. But over a given period of time when the NEC did not get the so-called rave critical reviews we still have a black public which will be stable enough to say; “Hey, let’s go to the NEC and see what they’re up to.” The white component might contract according to what the critics say but our core audience come because what we’re doing on stage is in one way or another relevant to them. With The River Niger on Broadway it was the black audiences that kept us running for as long as we did. Now when we went on the road with the show it can go either way. We go to Seattle and the house will be 90% white, in St. Louis it’s 50/50, we go to Minneapolis it’s 90% whites again but in South Carolina it’s going to be 90% black. So on the road the makeup of the audience shifts.
GE: I think that I read somewhere that you said that the NEC’s impact is felt more on the road than here in the city.
DTW: Yes, that’s true. The impact is most strongly felt in many places where we were giving them a view of something they were seeing and experiencing for the first time. Yes, for the first time they were seeing a bunch of black actors on a stage giving professional performances in a professionally produced play. That had an impact and in many cases according to where we went, it sparked many ambitions to emulate what they had seen or inspired ambitions that were lying dormant in various individuals. I have letters and stuff that people have sent me to that effect. The difference with us here at our home base is that we’re in competition with the whole cultural scene. We’re not just competing with theatre, we’re competing with everything. Everybody in New York is in competition with everybody else, be it for a job or a lover or sometimes even a patch of sunlight in the park on a Sunday. And let’s be realistic Gus, sitting in the park on a weekend is often more attractive to most people than sitting in a dark theatre with actors going through their stuff. So we’re competing with that. Still, we’re holding our own because of the black audiences we nurtured and developed over the years.
GE: How did you go about that?
DTW: Shit Gus, in all kinds a ways. In the beginning we sought to create them almost from scratch because we trusted them to ignore the show by show recommendations of the opinion makers and support us as an institution dedicated to providing theatrical entertainment culturally embedded in their area of personal interests. And education levels not withstanding they were and are artistically cultivated in the best sense of the word. What I’m saying Gus is that the black audience is the most sophisticated audience in the theatre? By that I mean they don’t bring all of that baggage of educated perception, preconception, predilections and shit when they come to see a play. Most of them anyway. You got to hold their attention. It’s as simple as that. Whatever you doing up there go to hold their motherfucking attention. Oh they’re kind and generous and want to be with you and so forth. But you got to hold their attention. You see, they don’t come in to the theatre and think shit like; “Oh I’m educated, so this is “style B and I’m supposed to like it. Or this avant garde so I’m supposed to respond to it this way.” All that labeling and stuff. The only people who bring that sort of baggage in with them is a minority within that group. The ones I call “the pseudo-black intellectuals”. You know the kind I’m sure. Ironically a lot of them are within the profession themselves. And some who are out of it too. They’re the ones you hear debating about things being “positive” and “negative “and all that stuff. But the regular black public, the cross section of all the classes that attend our shows don’t come in with any of that preconceived stuff. I mean a Gus Edwards play that didn’t have what those people would call a “positive” character in it was Weep Not for Me. I mean you had brother/sister incest going on and the audience loved it. Several came back more than once to see the show. I mean, if I remember well, we had to extend the run.
GE: You did.
DTW: Now they didn’t think;”How dare you show a Black brother getting sexual with his sister and so on. Why? Because it was provocative and it was given dimensional expression. They might not be able to express it in exactly those terms but they know that it wasn’t just up there for itself or any exploitative reason. They accepted it because they don’t expect every play to say everything about black life there is to say. Therefore if this writer’s play is negative, somebody else will be positive. And that’s what has been proven. That you don’t have to look at black art every single instance as having to become a microcosm of every statement or everything. Samm-Art Williams will take care of girl meets boy in a positive and romantic way, Charles Fuller with A Soldier’s Play and Zooman will raise provocative questions that the audience will have to deal with. You will deal with people on the margins of society or even people outside of the conventional moralities. Others will come up with sunshine and roses, others will give us bleakness and maybe doom. When you see them all together you get a cross section and a valid picture. So what our public has come to expect from us is an experience. Over the years they’ve gotten used to the fact that they don’t know what to expect except that it will be a dramatically valid experience. Samm –Art will get them one way, Joe Walker another, Paul Carter Harrison with his educated use of African literary forms mixed with funky black American idiom will engage them differently, you with your amoral outsiders and so on. They’ll accept it all if like I said it’s done with skill and dimension. They won’t always agree with it but they’ll accept it. That’s what I mean by their being so sophisticated. But on the other hand, if you did a provocative play and did it badly then they won’t tolerate it and might even walk out cursing your ass. Take a character like Zooman and all the shit he does in that play. They accept it, why? Because he looks like your son or your nephew or maybe your brother. As played by Giancarlo (Esposito) he looks like the angel next door. But then he comes out with all that fierceness and nihilistic shit but you recognize him still because of the dimensional way the character is written and expressed.
As I’ve said many times before we don’t need the New York Times to tell us if we have a hit or not. Gus, you know, for the most part the people who come to our shows don’t even read reviews. So they’re not swayed by what some motherfucker said one way or another about liking or disliking what we put up. And that puts us at an advantage because they’re not coming here preconditioned to look at the shit in any special way. They just want you to engage them and fuck the rest.
Our audiences Gus, is made up primarily of about 80% black folks and 20% white. Generally the white audiences come when the New York Times gives us a rave review for something. I mean we have some faithful white people who come to everything we do and that’s wonderful. But I’m talking in general.
GE: You also talked about the black audience keeping you culturally honest.
DTW: What is said that with the NEC we needed primarily black audiences because it will keep us culturally honest. You see if we’re misrepresenting or stereotyping aspects of black life they’re going to call us out on it. Sometimes right there in the theatre. They’re going to tell us we’re full of shit and maybe even curse us out. The black audiences aren’t shy about telling you what they like and don’t like, what’s true and what’s bullshit. They’ll call it out to you right then and there. They’re not like white audiences who have been educated out of responding in a primary way. They speak up and that’s what I like about them.
GE: I’ve seen it. Now tell how you went about finding and developing your audiences.
DTW: We did it in a number of ways. We would go to churches, Community groups and show scenes, offer discounts and so forth. If the play had a Caribbean setting or characters like Derek’s (Walcott) work or Steve Carter’s Nevis Mountain Dew we would go into the Caribbean communities in Brooklyn and places like that. Other times we would find special interest groups or theatre parties. All that worked fine. We even had people who dedicated themselves to getting church groups and social clubs and others to come in theatre parties and so forth. And we would do talk backs with them after the show. If you’ll remember I refused to do it for your show The Offering and some people got mad at me for it. But in the case of that show I felt that a comfortable talk back after that play wasn’t doing them or the play a service. They needed to go and think about it for awhile. If they wanted to come back a week later that would’ve been fine. But not right after the show.
GE: Saying that reminds me of an incident that took place maybe 10 or so years after the play. I was living in Arizona by that time and was visiting New York one summer when this guy stopped me on the street and asked if I was Gus Edwards. When I told him yes, he said that he had been one of a group of black psychiatrists who bought out the show one night and were introduced to me afterwards. He said: “Would you believe, but when we get together as a group we still talk about that show?”
DTW: Sure. That’s why I didn’t want any talkbacks with that one. But going back to how we went after and developed audiences, we went and got them from various places. Youth groups, a lot of poverty programs generally from the most depressed sections. The youth group people used to come, trying to find something to bring these young black teenagers to the theatre as a form of exposing them and finding something else for them to do other than the narrowness of their sitting on a stoop just in their community context. So we had access to a broad diversity context just through the places we went to in search of audiences for our shows. And that to me is important. And I’m sure you’ve heard me say it many times. I always want a cross section in the house. Not just of color but along the social spectrum as well.
GE: Could you elaborate on that for me?
DTW: Okay. okay; let’s taker Broadway for example. How could anybody in the world except the same upper five percent who have the money can even afford to go there? I’m not talking about the content of what’s being presented; I’m just talking about the price of the tickets. You follow what I’m saying?
GE: Uh huh.
DTW: Because of those prices inevitably you have the same group or class of people whether they be tourists or local theatre lovers going on a regular basis. So inevitably what’s done there is going to have to address itself to that group. It’s not necessarily conscious but an understanding of the nature of the public that’s going to pay for it has to in a major way dictate what the producers will choose to put their money into. So what I’m saying is that it can’t separate itself from the public it appeals to. Even its avant garde is forced to function almost in this same elitist vacuum. Whether it’s’ BAM or the New Wave or whoever, who are they playing to? Shit, as an artist, a black artist on Broadway, who the fuck am I playing to? What audience am I playing to? Nothing much, I’ll tell you. Not a goddamn thing. So except for making me personally rich with to have a Broadway quote hit there’s just no reason for me to have a play done there with the ticket prices being what they are. That’s why when we did The River Niger there we insisted that we keep a certain amount of ticket prices down so that they were affordable to our core constituency. We made them the price of what people were paying for movie tickets because we wanted to go directly to the black public and get them to witness what was being presented. In that way our artists write and play to a real public. Because you have to ask yourself; who are those others playing to? They don’t think that because they want to idealize their audience. They want to think that everybody wants to come out and see a play by Shaw. That everybody wants to be cultured in some way. That’s bullshit of course. Fuck being cultured. Who are they playing to? Who is the work impacting on? The critic for the New York Times? Who is this art for, the elitist five percent? Look, when we went to Broadway, we the Negro Ensemble Company my only question was, my biggest question was always;’ Look okay, I don’t mind going to Broadway as long as being on Broadway gives me access for a longer run that will allow me to reach and expand upon the public that I already set out to reach.
GE: And who are they?
DTW: As I said before primarily black people and a significant amount of white people who are interested and so forth. But when I talk about a cross section, I’m talking about construction workers, cab drivers, char women, nurses, grocery clerks, custodial people, postal workers and so on. You know what I’m saying. In that way at least we’ll be interacting with something that’s real. A real public and not one that homogenous. And when I say homogenous I’m talking in terms of the white theatre because they’re playing to the upper class elite. Even in their intellectual posture, who are these intellectual consumers? The ones who are more daring to sit and experience the avant garde shit? It’s a section of the same elitist five percent…At the NEC our audience cut across all economic class lines. Our biggest advantage is that we’ve been able to deal with a real public. A real public are people who whatever way we’ve impacted on them has been real. They have not been restricted to one class; say the professional class for instance. Our audiences have cut across all economic lines. So that anybody can independently pay the relatively cheap prices that we have. Those people who have jobs, let’s say. But in the early days, I mean even that wasn’t so. There were poverty programs and we had and still give theatre parties. As a result, our artists write and our actors play to a real public. Another question; who the fuck are the American theatre public? Gus, if I was sentenced to playing to the Broadway audience that I’m talking about I’d be bored to death. I would be depressed after two weeks. The only think I might be looking at is my paycheck and in that way I might survive. But psychologically, artistically I would be hungry and starving. When we were on the road with A Soldier’s Play we couldn’t change their theatre system therefore we were playing in theatres with 90% white audiences who were subscribers. But by the middle of the run we were always able to get in some black people from the community. In a lot of those places they were 100% sold out and therefore we didn’t have much leeway to get others. But at The Goodman in Chicago we had like 60% subscribers therefore the other 40% we had access to. As a result by two and a half weeks into the run the majority of the audiences were black. Once they finished with their subscriptions that gave us access. I don’t mind dealing with that. I don’t even mind playing to 100% because once in a while you’re going to be stuck with that. But then if you’re going to say that’s going to be your way of life then I would have to say; “Man can’t we get some of our own folks in here?”…You know, I probably talk this shit more than anybody else because I haven’t seen anybody else talking about it, asking the question; “Who the fuck are you playing to?”
Now most companies seem to be happy to get an audience period. And whether that audience provides any vitality or feedback, any dialogue, any interaction with the source material doesn’t seem to matter much or any at all with them. But if you go back to our original mandate we said that we have to play to an audience who will tell us something, whether we’re good or whether we’re speaking to them.
Commentary : this is an excerpt from Doug’s original article in The New York Times.
But for the Negro playwright committed to examining the contours, contexts, and depths of his experiences from an unfettered, imaginative Negro angle of vision the screaming need is for a sufficient audience of other negroes , better informed through a commonly shared experience to readily understand, debate, confirm, or reject the truth or falsity of his creative explorations. Not necessarily an all black audience to the exclusion of whites, but for the playwright, certainly his primary audience, the first person of his address, potentially the most advanced, the most responsive or the most critical. Only through their initial and continuous participation can his intent and purpose be best perceived by others. 8-14-66
DTW: And Gus, I’m not talking about this fucked up idea that Utopia shit that they’re necessarily going to tell us the right thing. I mean, sometimes they will tell us some shit that I will argue about. I’ll say: “You’re full of shit. You’re reacting that way because you’ve been conditioned in a fucking way that you know is wrong.” Yes I will argue with them but then there’s a real dialogue going on between the artist and the public. Not that we’re going to accept all their responses but we’re in communication with each other. It’s like I’ve always said, you have an obligation to the artist and you have an obligation to the public. A lot of times what I’ve found over the years is thankfully with the black public that obligation to the two sides have been harmonious. That to serve one had been to serve the other. But in a specific amount of instances you have to make the decision that my responsibility is to the artist. And I will not flinch to say: “Look, wait a minute, you’re not used to this but this artist is coming from a valid point of view. And since you’re not conditioned or your conditioning have been made crude by looking at soap operas or whatever you’re bringing some lazy habits that are preventing you from giving this audience
a hearing. What you desire and what you may claim is in opposition to what the audience is telling you therefore I, as Artistic Director will have to weigh that.” But as I said thankfully here you find those instances with the not over sentimentalized plays where the audience and work have been on the same wavelength. Plays like Niger or Louie and Ophelia. But with your other play The Offering, there we had the Ladies of Westchester almost quit the NEC because we weren’t going to talk about it because I knew that to talk about it in the way they wanted to talk about it was going to deny the value of the experience. That by talking about it they wanted to talk some bullshit and I knew they didn’t need to talk they just had to digest the work and throw it up maybe. But at least that would have been a real response. So it’s not a question of dealing with the public from their rightness or wrong. But that there’s an interaction with some real people who have a spontaneous response to it that’s more varied than just what we know the theatre gets from its five percent. And the truth is that it’s not even five percent, it’s the top, top five of that.
GE: I want to go back to that statement you made about the black audience being the most sophisticated audience in the world.
DTW: Because Gus, they don’t come to the theatre with that so called educated bullshit of putting plays into categories before they can respond to it. This is a farce; therefore I must react this way. This is a melodrama so I must have this response or whatever. In my 20 years of running the NEC in spite of what the critics say or choose to ignore we have put up every kind of play you can think of and the audience were never confused or alienated by the so called style in which it was written and presented. Their only response had to do with how well done it was and how engaged they were with it. I mean, look at our list and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I listed them here in the article here that the Times refused to print… Okay, Bogey, political in content, epic Brechtian in form, Kongi’s Harvest, Indigenous African in content, verse pageant in style, Man Better Man, Caribbean in locale, folk verse musical, The Reckoning, hyperbolic surrealism, The Great Mac Daddy, An Afro musical allegorical odyssey, Dream on Monkey Mountain, epic classicist poetic drama, Livin’ Fat, The Redeemer and Waiting for Mongo, farce and black satire, Daughters of the Mock, A Season to Unravel and Puppetplay, womanist in content, surreal, poetic, gothic and neoclassicist, your stuff The Offering, Manhattan Made Me and Weep Not for Me, bleak, sardonic meta realism, The Brownsville Raid, A Soldier’s Play, historio-real, Home, lyric folk impressionist, In an Upstate Motel, surreal, existential, Zooman, a social realist parable and all the rest. They’ve dealt with them, responded to them and never once questioned the style or form.
GE: We’ve talked about the black audience to a large extent but what about the white audience?
DTW: Let’s see, when we talk about the white audience we have to know and accept the fact that when we talk about them we’re talking about a very fragment of them from a demographical class. The white theatre audience is essentially upper middle class, generally educated in various ways and very restricted and limited in ways, behavioral ways I’m talking about. Their spontaneity has been interfered with or in a sense stifled to a certain extent. Their reception is generally internalized and cerebralized more than it is spontaneous. We’ve talked about the spontaneous response of the black audience but beyond that generally the black audience is broadened even among itself. It’s a wider class. I mean you will find a cleaning woman in a black audience.
GE: But not in a white audience?
DTW: If you do, it’s rare.