Theater offers show for Black-identifying audience

LOS ANGELES — There’s a buzzy energy happening around the Mark Taper Forum and it’s not just from the installation of their newest neon title, although Associate Artistic Director Tyrone Davis will be the first to tell you, “The neon sets the vibe.”

“Blues for an Alabama Sky” is playing under the direction of Phylicia Rashad, who starred in the world premiere of the piece 27 years ago. SoCal native Kim Steele, who plays Delia Patterson, is thrilled to be working under the icon.

What You Need To Know

  • Black Out Night was started by Jeremy O. Harris during “Slave Play’s” Broadway run
  • Having an all Black-identifying audience allows them to experience the material “free from the white gaze”
  • Center Theatre Group is holding a Black Out Night on April 8th with pre-show talk and post-show reception on the plaza
  • “Blues for An Alabama Sky” is directed by Phylicia Rashad and runs through May 8th

“Well, she is an acting masterclass,” Steele said of Rashad. “That doesn’t need to be said, but I’m going to say it. There’s so much to learn from her in terms of just being natural on stage but also having large stage presence. That’s probably the biggest lesson that I’ve tried to learn so far.”

Harlem is thousands of miles away from Steele’s hometown of Oceanside and the story is set close to a century ago, but the actress said the themes are unfortunately all too familiar.

“Some of the same issues that Black people were experiencing in 1930s Harlem, we continue to see them play out in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and now,” she explained.

But what also continues, Steele pointed out, is hope and resilience, in the characters and in the Black community today.

“You know, if things aren’t going the way that we want, we still find joy, and we find ways to celebrate,” she said, adding, “And we have Beyoncé. So, you know, there’s lots to look forward to, in spite of.”

The celebration — and perhaps the music of Beyoncé — will fill the plaza Friday night as Center Theatre Group presents the show, with its all-Black cast and creative team, to an all Black-identifying audience. It’s called Black Out Night and Davis says it’s an important opportunity for the company and the community.

“Blues for an Alabama Sky.” cast and crew. (Courtesy of Center Theatre Group)

“It’s rare for the theater to be majority people of color, and really feels almost unheard of, to have an all-Black audience,” he explained. “We’re making space for folks who have not felt welcome in the past, who may feel like theater wasn’t a space for them.”

The concept was started by Jeremy O. Harris during the run of his show “Slave Play” on Broadway as a way for Black audiences to experience the material “free from the white gaze.”

“When you are of a minority in the space, sometimes folks experience the show by watching you experience the show,” Davis said. “And I think having that gaze be removed, not having to worry about representing an entire group of people, but just being your authentic self, able to engage with the piece, is what’s most important.”

Since that first Black Out Night in 2019, several theaters have followed suit. There’s even a website with information about how to host one. CTG held their first one when “Slave Play” ran at the Taper earlier this year. Friday’s event will feature a pre-show welcome with actress Wendy Raquel Robinson and a post-show reception on the plaza with food and live music. It’s their second Black Out Night and will not be their last.

“The biggest question I got from folks was, ‘when is the next one?’” Davis said. “So we’re responding to folks’ needs, and right now they seem to want and need to have a space to gather. And Black Out Night is a space for it.”

Steele is excited for the event, admitting, “I love, love, love the idea of a Black Out Night,” but she still doesn’t think American theater on the whole has lived up to the promises made in 2020. However, like the characters in the side-by-side Harlem apartments in the play, she remains hopeful that change is coming, both on stage and in the house.

“Even if nothing changes in my lifetime,” she said, “I will be steadfast in my commitment to my people, to the art form which I love, and I feel like it belongs just as much to me as anyone else.”

“And then,” she added while reaching out her hand, “pass the baton on to the next generation.”

“Blues for an Alabama Sky” is in previews. It opens April 13 and runs through May 8.