By Aaron Zilbermann
Writer Elie Wiesel once said, “Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing.” Wiesel’s insight into the value and significance of true friendship is highlighted throughout the production of Dreamgirls presented in a limited run by the oldest Black theater in North Texas Jubilee Theater, in partnership with Performing Arts Fort Worth [a nonprofit organization] at Bass Performance Hall from August 11-14.
This 1981 Broadway musical [a cultural phenomenon and winner of six Tony Awards] demonstrates how easily the love we find in friendship can be neglected in an effort to force a romantic love, no matter how toxic it might be.
It requires confidence to take on the task of producing Dreamgirls, but it takes even greater talent to execute it well. D. Wambui Richardson, Jubilee Theater’s Artistic Director, did not leave the packed house disappointed. Mr. Richardson’s reinterpretation of this musical about the price of success for black singers in the 1960s who were forced to pander to a white audience, moved from beginning to end as a sustained, kinetic entity. Exploding with drama as it explored the sometimes-nasty place where ambition, love, heartache, and betrayal intersect. It’s the story of 3 hopeful singers – the Dreamettes – from Chicago who want to make it big in the style of the Supremes, and their story begins and ends at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem. With music direction by Steven A. Taylor and choreography by Quinton Winston, the production did not fail to entertain.
Jubilee & Theater Inlcusitivity
Last summer in August 2021, Jubilee Theater welcomed back audiences for the first time since the Bass Performance Hall closed for the pandemic with a successful production of Southern Boys: Sons of Sharecroppers. This [Dreamgirls] was the first production resulting from a collaboration between Jubilee Theater and Performing Arts Fort Worth, which owns and operates Bass Hall.
For quite some time now, theater has lagged behind nearly every other art form in terms of public interest, knowledge and accessibility. Music, both recorded and live, is consumed by a mass audience and when executed with talent and quality, musicians are able to make [at the very least] a living off their art. Movies are enjoyed by nearly everyone and even poorly funded independent films have the potential to reach an extremely broad audience. Even visual art is enjoyed by all and is accessible to all. Not everyone can afford an original painting by a famous artist, but anyone can purchase and enjoy a print or a poster of their favorite work of art. But somehow theater is different. The theater community struggles to reach a popular audience and is often inaccessible to much of the population. Even my most “cultured,” “educated” and “artistic” friends rarely go to the theater. The ones who do, are “theater people,” a unique breed of the American population who have either somehow found a love for the theater and consume it on a semi-regular basis (and research tells us that these audiences are overwhelmingly white, wealthy and educated), or they are theater artists themselves. Over the years, straight plays have always fared the worst of all the art forms in regard to public consumption and interest, followed by musical theater. Attendance rises and falls over the years due to various factors, but at the end of the day, plays and musical theater are not regularly attended by a popular audience and this is a deep existential dilemma that the theater community must immediately face: how can theater reach a popular audience and become relevant? As the theater community struggles with this dilemma, we must assess what currently draws an audience to a show. Unfortunately, it seems that the elegance and status of a venue and the perception of sophistication is what currently brings people to see the theater. Big names sell. Broadway sells. Marketing, branding, capital and name recognition provide producing companies with the capability of attracting a larger audience. This illusion of quality, or perhaps stamp of approval by the powers that be, is what can bring people to pay exuberant prices to see a theatrical production, even a mediocre one.
The Significance of Bass Performance Hall
I think the location of Jubilee Theater’s production of Dreamgirls did half of the work in packing nearly every seat at Bass Performance Hall. The stamp of approval that such a significant cultural landmark provides tends to generate an audience of the wealthy and the educated, regardless of race, ethnicity or culture. While obviously there is a much greater existential concern that the theater community must face, today the current state of affairs dictates that support from the well-funded institutions in a community offers a greater opportunity for ongoing success and access to a larger audience. If the performing arts industry is going to continue to operate within this traditional framework, as flawed as it may be, we must offer equal access within the existing infrastructure. To be clear, I am not throwing shade at the Bass Performance Hall or its operating organization, Performing Arts Fort Worth. The opposite in fact. The venue is a magnificent landmark for the city that provides a home to some of the most brilliant local performing arts organizations and attracts culturally significant touring productions from Broadway and beyond. The architecture provides an awe inspiring sense of royalty. I felt more important just sitting in this theater waiting for the show to start, taking in the detail and intricacies of its design. The acoustics are unbelievably superb and people are often interested in attending events here simply to experience this brilliant venue.
Yet the reality is that Bass establishes a legitimacy to a production or to a producing company that isn’t part of the equation at less extravagant venues that have been developed with less exuberant capital. Obviously, the production quality, the talent, and the artistic quality is significant. But this alone doesn’t draw an audience. Artistic merit and unbelievable talent can only take you so far. Without considerable attendance, and thus without the necessary revenue, the productions in DFW that need to be seen the most are often seen the least. I have seen poorly funded productions produced by local theaters and local artists that are more relevant and more brilliant than any of the touring Broadway shows that make their way through DFW, yet see a tiny fraction of the attendance and revenues. And these are the shows that should be prioritized, that should regularly be blessing the magnificent stage at Bass Performance Hall. Unfortunately, the public more often shows up to a production because of the name recognition, the publicity, and the money invested, and therefore Performing Arts Fort Worth prioritizes Broadway blockbusters in order to thrive. But this cycle must stop at some point if we are going to engage a more popular audience, decentralize professional theater, and invest in the brilliant talent DFW has to offer. And this is precisely what Performing Arts Fort Worth is doing with its second collaboration with Jubilee Theatre in the past two years.
The fact that Bass has continued their collaboration with Jubilee has significant meaning for the local theater community, particularly the Black theater community. It shows an intention from Performing Arts Fort Worth to broaden its investment in local arts organizations. Jubilee began as a homeless theater organization, performing in “saloons and storefronts” until it was able to gain enough community support in 1993 to create a permanent home for the theater on Main Street, a prime downtown location. In 2005, Jubilee completed a renovation project that increased their 99 seat capacity to 147. And now with their second successful production at Bass, Jubilee has once again increased the potential size of their audience to the 2,042-seat capacity at Bass Performance Hall. From what I could see, they had no problem filling the seats.
Performing Arts Fort Worth should continue to invest in touring Broadway shows, offering DFW an opportunity to witness some of the most successful and influential productions in the US today. But instead of investing so heavily in these touring Broadway productions, many of which happen to be non-equity productions, let’s hope that Bass continues to increase its investment in local productions that showcase the breadth of talent DFW has to offer.