September 19, 2021—I have attended hundreds of theater productions over the course of my career as an audience development and community engagement specialist. This past week, I had an experience that reaffirmed a core value I’ve been promoting for years, and I want to share this insight with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections.
The confirmation occurred during a recent performance of the Public Theater’s Merry Wives in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. Playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s re-telling of the Shakespeare play, Merry Wives of Windsor, has relocated its setting to South Harlem, and focuses on the lives of that neighborhood’s West African immigrants.
The play’s promotional materials call the production “a celebration of black joy and vitality,” and it is a wonderful example of how timeless work can be made relevant to a broader audience.
Both director Saheem Ali and Ms. Bioh welcomed the traditionally white Shakespeare in the Park audience to “Black Theater Night.” Mr. Ali, a native of Kenya, and Ms. Bioh, born in New York to parents who immigrated from Ghana, told the white audience members that they also were welcome to the performance. And then they shared that the production would be “very Black.”
Shakespeare in the Park has been at the forefront of promoting diverse casting for decades. So why was this performance different to me?
First, Black Theater Night, is an audience development tool utilized to invite predominantly African-American audiences to the theater. As I outlined in my first book, Invitation to the Party, the goal of programs like this is to create a safe space that is both welcoming, as well as culturally nuanced.
There also is a certain joy and celebration experienced when attending a performance about your community with members of your community. I really felt that during the performance of Merry Wives when other African-American audience members had similar reactions to mine.
Second, theater remains one of our greatest cultural instruments for breaking down barriers—it allows people the opportunity to come together and share an experience that potentially expands perspectives, opens hearts and changes minds.
Openly talking about cultural nuances affords the entire audience the opportunity to be receptive to learn something new; to step through the window of “other” and discover common ground.
I believe it is imperative that all arts venues recognize the value of acknowledging cultural nuances as an opportunity to expand access to all members of the audience and break down barriers at every opportunity. I believe this is one of the keys to making our arts venues safe spaces for all.