How can "white" theaters attract black audiences? Bridge the theater etiquette divide

March 7, 2011

I was sitting in the theater once talking to a friend.  I was in the middle of a sentence when the house lights went down, which I finished before the stage lights came up.  Nonetheless, the man in front of me turned around and gave me the filthiest look, as though I didn’t know how to behave in a theater and might be expected to talk all the way through.  I hope he got the peace he desired because he sure managed to ruin my peace for the evening: I was so furious and insulted that some total stranger thought he was entitled to police my unexceptionable behavior.  I’ve utterly forgotten the show but the encounter is indelible.

In a roomful of classical musicians and certified classical music lovers–you know, people with subscriptions to everything long-hair including WFMT--I kept hearing the highest accolade they could offer an audience: “They were rapt.”  “You could hear a pin drop.”  “They were completely silent.”  And I realized that my discomfort with classical music stems from precisely this sense of its taking place in an inner sanctum, expressed in the expectation of breathless silence, the prohibition against clapping between movements, the general obscure but oppressive etiquette.  It feels like it’s not enough just to enjoy classical music; you have to be awestruck and spellbound and transformed–and, especially, dumbstruck.

At the funeral of an African-American friend, I experienced the presiding minister’s gentle efforts to coach the whites in the congregation.  “You can laugh, it’s okay.  You can talk, you can clap, you can answer back–that’s how we do it here.”  Accustomed as we were to what’s known as “religious silence” in our own services, we were incredibly awkward at participating in the call-and-response that performs the same function in many black churches.

What do all these experiences have in common?  They all make me think of the tension in most mixed-raced theater audiences between the expectations of white audience members about their fellows’ behavior and those of black audience members.  (I haven’t had enough exposure to Latino audiences, which is shameful enough to say, to opine on their place along this spectrum.)  White audiences expect silence in the theater, and the most veteran theater-goers may regard it as their personal mission to shut others up, like the guy sitting in front of me at the Goodman.  But if he managed to ruin my evening with that flashing-eyed reminder of the rules, what do all those rule announcements sound like to people who haven’t, like me, spent their lives in the theater?   And particularly to black people who haven’t spent their lives in the theater, whose experience of performance is likely to include interactive church services and concerts of music where failure to clap hands or tap feet is the sign of someone’s being dead?

I don’t have anything to suggest about this tension–of course I want people in the theater to be quiet so I can immerse myself in what’s occurring onstage–but it’s worth acknowledging and considering.  If growing the nonwhite audience is important to white theaters, we/they might consider not only the cultural overtones of programming and casting but also of etiquette.  If the way people express their immersion in our work is to respond audibly to the stage, what’s wrong with that?  Every comic performer is just dying to hear laughter; shouldn’t dramatic performers, and the audiences observing them, be equally ready to hear brief commentary?  And if we’re not–if that violates utterly our sense of how theater-goers are supposed to behave–will we ever get across the cultural barrier that continues to divide us by race and ethnicity in what’s supposed to be a universal art form?

It’s frustrating to me as a Democrat to watch President Obama being bipartisan, because I know my partisan view is right.  In the same way, it may be frustrating for veteran (especially white) theater-goers and performers to hear me urging acceptance of audience behavior that’s heretofore been unacceptable–because they know what we’ve been doing up til now is right.  But if we’re not willing to concede the possibility that the other guy’s way is just as good, how are we ever going to share a society with him?