It's a brisk autumn night in 1997, and the lobby of the Music Hall is buzzing with anticipation as patrons file in for the latest installment in black popular theater, Why Good Girls Like Bad Boyz. The crowd is stylin' and it's obvious that seeing who's come and being seen are as much motivation for attending as the play itself.
With the curtain moments from opening, the orchestra strikes up the play's medley. This builds audience excitement. For many, Why Good Girls Like Bad Boyz is live entertainment at its best. It's theater of black, by black, for black, and it sells. In Detroit, black popular theater has become a staple with a huge following laying out up to $250,000 in one week.
Al Wash of ALW Entertainment, producer of Why Good Girls Like Bad Boyz, believes that the appeal of these plays lies in their message and music. "When you talk about a gospel musical, you take the songs that everyone can relate to, as well as characters that are a part of their everyday lives. There's always something people can relate to -- character, music or storyline."
And all three elements are a consistent part of the inspirational, urban-focused plays which aficionados call gospel musicals and which critics call the "chitlin circuit." But the appeal and quite possibly the controversy over the chitlin circuit is nothing new. The circuit got its start in the '20s when the Theater Owners Booking Association brought plays to black audiences throughout the South and Midwest, giving rare and cherished opportunities to black actors, comics and musicians. Although the TOBA faded into obscurity, the tradition it began lived on. In the late '60s, African-American dramatic arts rose to more prominence in the form of two New York theater companies, the Negro Ensemble Company and the New Lafayette Theatre. Both are now defunct and have left a gap in quality theater.
Regardless of whether one tags them as "gospel musicals" or "chitlin circuit productions," there's a basic script formula in these plays. The beginning: The introduction of the characters who emulate negative black stereotypes -- a kind of "Good Times," "Martin" and Superfly all rolled into one. The middle: The sweet, naive main character is influenced by the antagonist and departs from his or her gospel roots. The conclusion: The main character realizes the error of his or her ways thanks to the big, show-stoppin' gospel finale.
Throughout, the audience is truly touched by the reality of their world come to life. It can relate to the gang member, the drug dealer, the smooth-talking antagonist and the church influence.
Although many critics may not appreciate the formula or the negative stereotypes that the plays are interlaced with, the productions do have some redeeming qualities, as pointed out by the esteemed black playwright and University of Michigan professor, Charles OyamO Gordon.
"The thing about the chitlin circuit is it really does teach us that there is an audience out there; they're willing to pay money and they can sustain an artistic endeavor."
Gordon admits that the circuit is not without its flaws, but flaws that can be refined. "The circuit has been harnessed by people who have been giving tawdry goods, aesthetically speaking. But it does show that if you can improve the aesthetics and keep up the appeal to people, you can support legitimate artistic activities."
Gordon, like so many others, believes the gospel plays could and should strive to set higher goals. "The plays could maintain their entertainment level but include an element that goes beyond entertainment -- enlightening, fulfilling and informative. They can deal with serious issues in a serious and timely manner. Essentially," Gordon adds, "the plays would be more aesthetically pleasing and elevating at the same time."
Bill Harris, also a highly acclaimed African-American playwright, teaches English and play writing at Wayne State University. He agrees with his colleague, but adds that the element of "cultural comfort" has a lot to do with the appeal of the circuit, and that can't be taken away or you could lose your audience.
"These are the people that we know; they act in a certain way and that validates our world. It says that I'm OK 'cause I know what this is about -- anything beyond that comfort zone represents danger, not only on the stage, but in real life."
Harris believes that this need to stay within a comfort zone where entertainment is concerned is a result of one's real-world, hard life and the need to escape it. "The more complex the real world gets, the simpler you want your entertainment to be; you don't want to be challenged by your entertainment.
"That line of thinking transcends racial lines -- that's why television is as popular as it is," Harris adds with a tone of exasperation.
Although the chitlin circuit is theater rooted in the black community, it may not be what famed playwright August Wilson, who is probably the most accomplished black playwright in the nation, had in mind when addressing the Theatre Communications Group near Princeton University almost two years ago. His speech promoting a segregated theater to ensure authentic black creativity polarized his listeners, as outlined in The New Yorker magazine (February 1997):
"The black members of the audience started glancing at one another: heads bobbed, a black-power sign was flashed, encouragement was murmured -- 'Go ahead brother,' 'Tell it.' Many white audience members, meanwhile, began to shift uneasily, gradually acquiring an expression compounded of pain and puzzlement: 'After all we've done for him, this is how he thanks us?' The world of nonprofit theater is tiny but intense and, it soon became clear, Wilson's oration was its version of the Simpson verdict."
But as it stands now, if you're looking for pure black theater as a cultural preserve, you may have to cross historical dramas by the likes of Wilson, OyamO and Harris off your list. According to circuit promoter Al Wash, "the audience that frequents the chitlin circuit isn't likely to cross over to an August Wilson play." He adds, "Clearly, Wilson's audience is racially mixed and more upscale, but that doesn't make one format better or worse, just different."
And to critics of the chitlin circuit and those who take offense at the product he promotes, Wash directs a simple request: "Keep it up. I welcome the criticism, because I'm a longtime believer that any publicity is good publicity." He is also quick to credit the circuit's legitimacy. "As long as there's an audience getting entertained and willing to pay for that entertainment, we will continue to fulfill that niche and Wilson can continue to meet the needs of his audience, however different."
The question is: Are Detroit audiences willing to consistently challenge themselves artistically and fill up auditoriums for meaningful black theater, like they do for the popular gospel musicals?