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Theatre Tales - On Movie-Going/Stage Experiences With "Black Audiences"

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act June 11, 2013 at 11:38AM

Listening to THIS NPR piece this morning, asking whether audiences in theaters are becoming more and more boorish, and have lost their manners, made me think of the ongoing debates/discussions about how "black people" are in that environment, whether it be to see a movie, or even a play - specifically, the commonly-held belief that "we" just love to engage with the action on the screen in front of us, or with each other, about what we're watching together (certainly not all black people, by the way, hence all the quotes). And with the proliferation of mobile devices (smart phones, tablets, etc) and well as social networking involvement, annoyances like texting, tweeting (I've seen some folks live-tweet movies they're watching in a theatrical setting with others), and even making and answering phone calls, aren't entirely taboo.
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Movie Theater

Listening to THIS NPR piece this morning, asking whether audiences in theaters are becoming more and more boorish, and have lost their manners, made me think of the ongoing debates/discussions about how "black people" are in that environment, whether it be to see a movie, or even a play - specifically, the commonly-held belief that "we" just love to engage with the action on the screen in front of us, or with each other, about what we're watching together (certainly not all black people, by the way, hence all the quotes). And with the proliferation of mobile devices (smart phones, tablets, etc) and well as social networking involvement, annoyances like texting, tweeting (I've seen some folks live-tweet movies they're watching in a theatrical setting with others), and even making and answering phone calls, aren't entirely taboo.

I recall journalist Jeffrey Well’s rant I read a few years ago, on his reasons for not having ever seen a film with a mostly African American audience in his entire life, which got a mild chuckle out of me, including the myriad of comments that followed in response – seemingly all from other white men (but I could be wrong).

I’m not one of those post-racial types who’s naive enough to believe that we don’t still very much live segregated lives. However, I must admit that there was something still sad about Wells’ words as well as the comments of those that followed. This black “otherness” that we’ve all experienced before from whites did irk me.

Wells’ reasons for his not ever having seen (at the time anyway, maybe he has since then) a film with a mostly AA audience were several, including, as he stated, “I don’t like seeing mass-market movies with regular ticket-buyers because they make too much noise with candy wrappers and go to the bathroom too much and bring their noisy-ass kids, and partly because of the legend of urban audiences always talking back to the screen is still with us, whatever the truth of it, and I won’t have that.

He then related a story that goes back 30 years to when Ridley Scott’s Alien was in theatres, which he further used to justify his position, to comedic effect.

To the impulsive, his words (and those of his responders) may immediately register as racist; but, to be quite frank, there are theatres in New York City that I myself (a black man) avoid going to for some of the reasons he gives – notably, I’ve never quite gotten used to the chatting, and other disturbances that frequently occur when I’ve previously screened films in those particular theatres. Maybe that makes me out to be a classist, but, I much prefer to watch my movies, and see my plays and musicals, amidst a certain kind of decorum – quiet, and comfy. There’s nothing more annoying than having a theatrical experience ruined by a few, or several inconsiderate people.

However, contrary to Wells’ post, and the comments that followed, this experience they talk about isn’t some "black culture" normative. I think it’s more about class than it is about race.

Discussions of race, especially with regards to class, usually make me uncomfortable, because the notion that one person is somehow more superior to another is something I continue to grapple with; I don’t believe anyone likes to feel inferior and be condescended to. I certainly don’t; so I make an effort to challenge myself on that. It’s a conversation we can’t have without considering a wealth of factors that predetermine where each of us lands in society’s hierarchy.

It harkens back to a time when Europeans, believing themselves to be superior, entered Africa and sought to “civilize” those they referred to as “savages” – our ancestors. I’m essentially forced to question my own purview; although, honestly, I also do sometimes welcome the disruption of what I call standards of being that neither I, nor my forefathers and mothers, had a hand in setting. So, for example, when I see the young brother with his pants down to his knees, I'm sometimes cool with that, because it’s, we could say, a slap in the face of what us self-appointed so-called "proper folks" have come to deem as somehow "civilized," even though the young men who don that particular look may not be doing so in rebellion or in consideration of some kind of revolution.

All that said, I’m a product of my environment, as we all are, however varied in manner and scope; and I know that, as I sit here typing this, I’d much rather sit in a theatre and enjoy a film or play, absent of the least bit of disturbance! Sue me! So either shut up and let others enjoy the experience that they paid for, or leave the theater.

In addition to Jeffrey Wells' rant, I also recall Denzel Washington's reactions to audience members when he was on Broadway, starring in Fences, about 3 years ago:

There are all these women coming to see me, to see this actor they like, and I appreciate that… But at some shows, women are carrying on and snickering too much. Like at our Mother’s Day performance. Some audience members wouldn’t stop talking during an Act II speech. So I walked down to the front of the stage and stared at them, silently, for 30 seconds. They stopped, and I went on. 

Yapping during a movie is one thing; you're engaging a 2-dimensional object, and what you're watching isn't happening in real-time. But it has to be very distracting for stage actors, in a live setting, when audiences are vocal with their reactions to the performance.

What about you??? Your take on all this…

You can listen to (or read) the NPR piece HERE.


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