It’s a warm Saturday night and the promenade leading into the Warner Theatre is electric; a static energy buzzes above the crowd that you can practically poke. The laughter, the “lewks,” the shared language. The marquee reads “Set It Off: Live on Stage,” but this is hardly your average night at the theatah.
Sorority girls call “oo-oop” to find one another in line. One woman leans heavily on her date as they make their way through metal detectors to get to their seats. There’s the polite suggestion — whispered to the air — that they head back to the car so that she can switch into more forgiving flats. The no is nonnegotiable.
Who wears sky-high heels to a play? Answer: This isn’t just a play. This is a scene, honey. This is an event. The crowd juggles cocktails and popcorn as the DJ, who has been spinning late-’90s R&B, turns down the music and the curtain goes up.
Chances are, even if you’ve never seen an “urban play,” you’ll recognize its core elements: the on-the-nose title, the uncomplicated characters, the moralizing plot. For years critics have dismissed the genre as lowbrow, but the crowds that keep showing up are not complaining.
Urban theater’s been going strong for decades, employing an army of talented people of color. Its big-name producers are millionaires many times over. Its shows pack the same 3,000-seat theaters that play Tony Award winners such as “The Lion King.” Cable network Bravo is airing a reality show that pulls back the curtain on urban theater super-producer JD Lawrence’s play “Your Husband Is Cheating on Us.”
The long canon of successful urban stage plays that reflect the contemporary African American experience runs the gamut from Broadway’s 1976 drama-and-gospel mash-up “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God” to 2017’s “Thugs and the Women Who Love ’Em.”
Then, of course, there’s BTP and ATP. Before Tyler Perry and After Tyler Perry. Or as the folks in urban theater call him, just Tyler, like he’s a cousin who made good.
Perry, a writer-actor-director- producer who made millions touring the country with dozens of plays featuring his beloved Madea character, burst into mainstream success in 2005 with the box office hit “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” an adaptation of one of his earlier works. That movie made more than $50 million, and the success got industry tongues wagging. Would the genre break out of its niche?
That was more than a decade ago, and despite fresh talent, more secular story lines and a younger audience, urban theater has remained largely the same, and the stage plays are still panned by critics.
Sure, the front of the house is happy and turning a profit, but there are signs of stagnation, and a few folks behind the scenes want something more.
“If we don’t do something fairly quickly, it’s probably a dying art,” says producer Melvin Childs, who helped catapult Perry to fame. In 1998, Childs backed Perry’s first theatrical hit — “I Know I’ve Been Changed” — and went on to back dozens of other productions.
He calls Perry “king” of the art form and says “nobody’s been able to come close to duplicating” his success.
Since those heady days, the crowds have gotten smaller and so have the profit margins, says Childs, whose “The Neighborhood Barbershop,” which had been scheduled to touch down in Washington at DAR Constitution Hall last month, was canceled at the last minute because of lackluster ticket sales.
Childs says urban theater has the potential to grow and bridge cultural divides. “I just want to produce shows that are loved by everybody,” he says. “Just like hip-hop, it’s not a black thing anymore.”
What does the genre look like in 2018, then? Stage plays, musicals and comedies? Are they family reunions or relics?
The men and women in urban theater call it “the circuit.” That’s shorthand for “chitlin’ circuit,” the old-school archipelago of theaters where black artists and audiences could enjoy one another without being bothered by Jim Crow. Today, decades after the necessary creation of those safe spaces, purveyors of urban theater still define the genre by what it once was — a theatrical art form marked by its segregation from Broadway.
“I’ve seen several shows that have just as much talent and are just as compelling as those Broadway shows, but because it’s geared toward a black audience it gets categorized as second class,” Childs says. “And I don’t think that’s fair, but it is what it is.”
Vy Higginsen wrote what some credit as the first urban theater play, “Mama, I Want to Sing!”
In 1983, the show started in a formerly abandoned theater in Harlem and ran for eight years solid, says Higginsen, who based the play on her family’s story. After closing in New York, “Mama” toured nationally and internationally for 2½ more years.
Before her play, Higginsen, a former marketing executive at Ebony magazine, says that “people” didn’t think “black folks were coming out to see theater.” Higginsen knew better.
“The heart and soul of any community is in their art,” she says.
It wasn’t that the audience didn’t exist; it was that it hadn’t yet been offered anything it wanted to see.
Veteran actress D’Atra Hicks, the circuit’s diva emeritus and self-titled “Beyoncé,” got her start in “Mama, I Want to Sing!” and has since done stints on Broadway. She considers the circuit “black Broadway.”
“This is something that I looove,” Hicks croons in her rich alto. “It’s a part of me.”
If Hicks — currently starring opposite R&B throwback Ginuwine on Bravo’s “Your Husband Is Cheating on Us” — is the genre’s ambassador, then call it brassy, bursting with talent and yet somehow, at more than 50 years old, below the radar.
The Bravo show, which returns with new episodes in June, follows the mounting of a stage play promoted and written by Lawrence. Hoping to inject new life into the circuit and expose its stars to a wider audience, Lawrence took the idea for a reality show to the cable network with plenty of drama built in. Two cast members, veterans of the circuit, have a child by the same man; he is another widely known actor in the industry.
Ginuwine, a sex symbol in the 1990s, joined the cast of the play and reality show to challenge himself and got more than he bargained for. Sparks fly between him and fellow cast member Tondy Gallant, who’s appeared in other circuit plays — including “If These Hips Could Talk” and “Mama’s Sweet Potato Pie,” where Gallant and Ginuwine first met.
Jermaine Sellers, who’s acted in Tyler Perry plays and is also starring on the Bravo show, says he had done “the Broadway thing,” but found more opportunities and steady paychecks on the road with stage plays. He auditioned for the Tony Award-winning Broadway play “Kinky Boots” only to be cast as a member of the show’s drag queen chorus. In the end, the part didn’t appeal to him. “I’m sorry, I don’t do ‘the extra,’ I’m going to need a leading role,” he recalls thinking.
In urban theater, Sellers got the chance to really be seen. And he pays no mind to critics who characterize plays such as “I’ll Always Love My Mama” and “Momma Don’t” as less than. His theory about the circuit sounds like a line from one of those plays: “My grandmother said it best,” he says. “They talked about Jesus Christ, but in the end they had to call him savior. It is what it is.”
“It is what it is” is the intangible earworm repeated by many of the actors, writers, producers and publicists who make their living from the art form, promoting and performing three-night stints in major cities with tickets starting at about $40 a pop.
But will the niche genre ever be more than “what it is”?
“She better act!” shouted one patron at the end of a seminal monologue by LeToya Luckett, an actress and former Destiny’s Child member who starred as Frankie in “Set It Off: Live on Stage.”
No one shushed the loud theatergoer. If anything, everyone agreed. Luckett was acting her butt off, delivering a fiery speech about working to the bone at a bank that had just fired her.
The audience, many of whom were familiar with the 1996 film starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise, seemed entirely unconcerned with philosophical questions about the nature of art as they took in the stage adaptation. They were too busy cackling and ummhmming and enjoying each other in general.
Those kinds of outbursts both endear fans of the genre and irk artists like D.C.-based playwright Raquis Petree, who for nearly a decade worked on his own adaptation of the movie called “Set It Off: The Musical” — not to be confused with “Set It Off: Live on Stage,” produced by circuit heavyweight Je’Caryous Johnson.
Petree dreamed that his version of “Set It Off” would be a “bridge” connecting the urban theater audience to the legitimacy of Broadway. Its themes of female empowerment and #BlackLivesMatter poignancy struck him as particularly salient and prone to crossover. Instead, the circuit’s version of “Set It Off” plays for cheap laughs, he says.
“It’s time for our audience to grow up,” says Petree, who has several urban productions under his belt. “I think that they’re ready to go a little higher.”
Other stories starring African Americans have been big hits on Broadway: “Hamilton,” “The Color Purple” and “Motown: The Musical.”
Lawrence noted similarities between his work and those — the reliance on music and lyrics rooted in black culture and the popularity of the productions.
“I’m selling these theaters completely out,” Lawrence says. “The same theater that ‘Lion King’ is playing at, but we’re still classified as the chitlin’ circuit.”
Right, but “Set It Off” is not August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry, says culture critic Michael Arceneaux, author of “I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé.” He saw “Set It Off” during its first Washington run.
“It’s a good time if you know exactly what you’re signing up for,” Arceneaux says. “In the same way there is a time for fine dining and then there is a time for the spicy chicken strips combo from Popeye’s, that’s how you should go in ready to see ‘Set It Off’ and plays like it. The audiences get that, which is why the play has done so well.”
Inside the Warner Theatre, all the hand-wringing about the genre quickly transforms into clapping. At the close of the show, the audience gives the women of “Set It Off” a standing ovation. The vibe is almost joyous as Linda Stewart, Johnson’s producing partner, walks on stage to make a post-show announcement that feels like a sermon and a call to action.
“Thank you for your support,” says Stewart. “Thank you for your love. If we don’t show up for our own shows, who will?”
Before she leaves the stage, many in the crowd happily search for phones buried deep in purses and pockets and start tweeting, texting and Instagramming. Making sure that the next night’s show is just as packed.