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54% of the People. 12% of the Plays. Atlanta, Do We Have a Problem?


You can see what the Alliance’s money buys. At its 650-seat Coca-Cola Stage, I caught a performance of “Maybe Happy Ending,” a charming, Broadway-ready new musical about robots in love by Will Aronson and Hue Park. That it featured a largely Asian-American cast suggested a successful effort to program and hire with inclusion in mind. At the 200-seat Hertz stage, “Seize the King” — Will Power’s hip-hop retelling of “Richard III” — was preparing to open.

And though, yes, it was February, Susan V. Booth, the theater’s artistic director, said her goal is to make the entire season of 11 shows welcoming to diverse audiences. “It’s not just white play, white play, black-history-month black play, white play, which is how regional theaters used to show they were woke,” she said. “Because if your programing arc is episodic, the same will hold true in your audience.” Indeed, at many Atlanta theaters, black theatergoers and white ones barely intersect.

“What’s absolutely crucial is who’s doing the inviting,” Booth added, pointing as an example to Pearl Cleage, the Atlanta-based black writer whose “Blues for an Alabama Sky” and “What I Learned in Paris,” among many others, have had their premieres at the Alliance. “We set ticket expectations for Pearl’s new plays as if they were musicals because when Pearl is inviting, she packs out the house.”

Even so, Booth, who is white, admitted that the Alliance’s audiences overall are not as diverse as she’d like: “something like 30 percent to 35 percent nonwhite.” (On Broadway, the figure is closer to a quarter.) I did not observe even that much melanin the night I saw “Maybe Happy Ending,” despite its Korean setting — but in any case, Booth said, “statistical diversity is not the goal.”

True. But it’s a good step, right?

“The goal is that we sit cheek by jowl with as much of a breadth of human experience as we can, not erasing human difference but unearthing what unites us.”

I certainly had that experience the next evening when I saw Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play” at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theater. Even though I was one of the few white people in the audience, the breadth of human experience — by age and gender and style if not race — was strongly represented. The audience’s engagement with the play itself, a recent hit Off Broadway, was likewise palpable, with hoots and gasps and back talk that enhanced the comedy as well as the dramatic turns.

Apparently, that’s often the case at True Colors, which performs at an arts center in Cascade, a middle-class black neighborhood 12 miles southwest of the Alliance in Midtown. Most of the three plays the company produces each season are by black authors, and all of them address black lives, so it does not have to work hard to let people know who’s “doing the inviting.”

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