On Sept. 18, Slave Play set aside all 804 of the seats at Broadway’s Golden Theatre for Black theatregoers, and Black theatregoers only. The community responded by showing up and filling those seats for Jeremy O. Harris’s provocative drama, among them Jesse Williams, Joy Bryant, Keke Palmer, Kelsey Lu, Tonya Pinkins, Paloma Elsesser, and Norm Lewis.
To have the majority of a Broadway audience consist of people of color is undoubtedly a rarity (according to the Broadway League, 75 percent of Broadway ticket buyers are white). But to have a house that is only Black is almost certainly unprecedented. Answering questions via Twitter message, Harris said he was challenged to hold the event (dubbed the Black Out) by musician Kelela, who was also in attendance Sept. 18. Asked what the performance was like, Harris says it was like being “transported” to “some new place in the future where this was a standard, not a possibility. It felt like we turned the ‘hallowed’ space of a theatre into just a building—a building with new possibilities and rules. People got out of their seats to go to the bathroom when they needed, people spoke, people laughed loudly, talked back, people (mon dieu!) texted with their ringers off and screens turned low. And the whole room felt free. It was like a concert more so than a play and like people in the room were discovering a new amazing band.”
Slave Play came to Broadway with strong advance buzz and reviews from its premiere late last year at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop. It doesn’t hurt that Harris has more than 37,000 followers on Instagram. But that doesn’t mean getting Black audiences to the theatre was easy. For one, the producers couldn’t simply market this special night widely via press agents or build advance buzz for it. According to Harris, it all came through direct outreach; the event wasn’t even made public until two days before.
“We gave away hundreds of tickets to Black student organizations for free,” he says. “Then we invited a bunch of people in the Black community to send the invite around.” He adds, “I jokingly said it was like the Underground Railroad.” The reason the event was kept on the down-low was because, according to Harris, “We didn’t want to open it up for too many non-Black folks who were possibly angry or upset about it and would try to buy tickets to thwart.”
Black Out was part of an atypical audience engagement effort that Harris and the producers have launched around Slave Play. It includes building a Black community and support network around a work that stirred some heated online controversy for its depictions of interracial relationships and depictions of ostensibly enslaved Black people. Producers have priced 10,000 tickets to Slave Play at $39.
According to Harris, these initiatives are not a craven ploy to put butts in seats: The show is playing at almost 99 percent capacity, with more than $1 million in ticket sales and $100,000 in advance sales a day.
“I said to my fellow producers when we began this journey, if we are doing Slave Play for a profit we are doing it wrong,” says Harris. “That’s not the politics for me and that’s not the politics to the play, and everyone heard it.”
Indeed, one of the producing entities, Level Forward (headed by Abigail Disney and Adrienne Becker), insisted that 10 percent of the profits from Slave Play be donated to a nonprofit. Harris chose the National Black Theatre in Harlem, which focuses on new plays by Black writers, and the U.K.-based Black Ticket Project, which gives Black youths free tickets to theatre performances.
Level Forward was founded last year as an entertainment company. Since its inception, it has helped produce on Broadway What the Constitution Means to Me, Oklahoma!, and the upcoming Jagged Little Pill. Donating a share of profits is part of Level Forward’s business model. “Capitalism is critically important and it’s a huge responsibility, but it has to be handled thoughtfully,” says Becker. “The 10 percent is a counterweight on the privilege lottery—the privilege lottery says that only certain people have the best shot of having their voices heard and being seen. Particularly in a place where there is not a lot of space like Broadway.”
With money from previous Broadway shows, Level Forward has donated to Generation Citizen and Shine MSD; for Oklahoma! the producers also made sure the production was gun neutral. This producing model allows theatre, which is inherently hyperlocal, to have an impact beyond its performance. And it diverges from traditional commercial producing in which the profit margin is king. The producers of Slave Play are trying to balance earnings and access, and modeling a world in which profits don’t have to come at the expense of altruism. In an age where many are debating the ethics of consumption and capitalism, it’s natural that the conversation would reach Broadway.
“Level Forward is a public benefit corporation,” says Becker. “We are mandated to balance shareholder return and the greater good. It’s totally doable. It requires a reprioritization, not purpose over profit, but of balancing.” Becker thinks this model can be replicated; for a particularly successful show, 10 percent can represent a drop in the income bucket (and these days, even if a show wasn’t successful on Broadway, the national tour will usually yield returns). “I think this is one manifestation of a bigger-picture opportunity. This is an open call to all producers across media to think about how they can redefine what those measures of success are in their business, what is high performance, redefine that. Here’s the chance; let’s kick the door open a little bit more.”
Following the success of last week’s full-house Black Out, the producers of Slave Play are keen to host another similar event. The production is also hosting a weekly salon every Sunday morning on the Lower East Side to help audience members, in Becker’s words, “process” the play.
Harris has also launched a website called Black Work Broadway, a still-in-progress database of Black works that have premiered on Broadway and their production information. Since launching the list, Harris had made several discoveries. One is that since 1991, the only Black authors whose work has been revived on Broadway were Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. Another: From 1969 to 1979, there were “more Black plays on Broadway than any other recent decade, and most were developed in [Black] affinity theatres.”
That’s another reason Harris is so keen to share some of his profits with the National Black Theatre, which develops new Black plays. Many artists of color get their start at affinity theatres (also known as culturally specific theatres), yet those same institutions are underfunded and smaller compared to their white counterparts.
Slave Play may be his Broadway debut, but he and the producers have been thinking about the impact the work can have, not just on ticket sales. “For me it was about Black work begetting Black work and Black audiences,” he says. Indeed, altruism aside, these Slave Play initiatives are ingenious marketing. Slave Play angered many in the Black community last winter when photos from the show were released and reviews came out, and many thought offered a romanticized portrayal of slavery. By making sure more people see it, especially more Black people, Harris and the producers can at least ensure that whatever conversation ensues, it’s based on firsthand accounts rather than assumptions and hearsay.
From lowering ticket prices to making sure the performance experience is comfortable to newcomers, the team behind Slave Play is approaching accessibility from multiple fronts. Becker says these new ideas are a byproduct of allowing more diversity in the room, noting that Level Forward is a woman-led company dedicated to supporting artists doing work considered by traditional producers as “risky.” Female producers are still rare on Broadway. “No one invited all these people in the creative margins into the greenlighting conversation and development conversation,” Becker says. But when you let more voices in, chances are they’ll “naturally be more innovative. There’s just going to be more free thinking.”