NEW YORK: Early one Sunday this month, 56 people boarded a bus in a suburb of Washington, D.C., to make the trip to Broadway to see a play.
The all-day trip was part of a fundraiser organized by members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the oldest African-American female sorority of college-educated women. People on the bus ranged from a child under 6 to grandmothers. There were veteran Broadway goers and theater newbies.
The bus was full - despite it being Palm Sunday - and the trip, which ended close to 11:30 p.m., was long. What would attract so many to make the trip north to see a matinee from the rear mezzanine on a religious holiday?
Five words: "A Raisin in the Sun." Actually, make that two: Denzel Washington.
"I think everybody enjoyed themselves. Everybody on the bus was pleased. They had a good time and thoroughly enjoyed the play," said Garlette Jordan, a federal worker and sorority member who helped plan the trip. "Of course, Denzel was the main draw."
With all due respect to Mr. Washington, it's not just him. This Broadway season has been rich with roles for African-Americans and audiences are responding, from the packed Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where the musical "After Midnight" celebrates Duke Ellington's years at the Cotton Club, to the overfilled Circle in the Square, where Audra McDonald is channeling Billie Holiday.
Black singers and actors are being featured all over Broadway stages, some in roles written for African-Americans, such as Terence Archie who plays a fearsome Apollo Creed in "Rocky," Joshua Henry as a black soldier in the musical "Violet," and Brandon J. Dirden as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the historical play "All the Way."
Others are in nontraditional black roles, like James Monroe Iglehart as the manic Genie in "Aladdin"; Nikki M. James playing Eponine and Kyle Scatliffe, making his Broadway debut as Enjolras, in "Les Miserables"; and LaChanze and Jerry Dixon in the new musical "If/Then." Earlier this season, Condola Rashad played Juliet opposite Orlando Bloom's Romeo.
"Not only is colorblind casting happening but you've got African-American pieces happening as well," said McDonald, who has managed to catch "After Midnight" twice despite starring in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill." She added: "It's a very rich Broadway season, too. Not all seasons are this rich. There's something for everybody this year."
More is on the way. A musical inspired by the lyrics of Tupac Shakur called "Holler If Ya Hear Me" opens in June. And next month, a huge barrier will be broken when Norm Lewis becomes the Phantom in the megahit "The Phantom of the Opera," making him the first African-American to slip behind the famous mask on the Great White Way.
"I think it's the confluence of a lot of different things but clearly this year you've got a lot of high-quality work going on, both in the material as well as the execution and the performers. It's quite exciting," said Scott Sanders, who produced "After Midnight," which has starred Fantasia Barrino, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Toni Braxton and currently Vanessa Williams.
The increase in black roles and shows that attract a black audience builds on recent successes, such as last year's hits "Motown the Musical," ''The Trip to Bountiful" and "Kinky Boots," which boasts newly crowned Tony Award-winner Billy Porter.
"It ebbs and flows," warned Porter, a veteran singer and actor who recalls struggling to get parts. "Black people are on an upswing now. But if you ask the Asians, they may have another story to tell."
His wariness is echoed by data from The Asian American Performers Action Coalition, which found that the percentage of minority actors working on Broadway and at the top 16 not-for-profit theater companies in New York City rose just 2 percent during the 2011-12 season, as compared with the previous season.
Over the years, the representation of actors of color has consistently remained within the low 20 percent range, never reaching even a quarter of all roles cast, according to the coalition. Data on the current 2012-13 season is still being accumulated.
Sanders, who has also produced such shows as "The Color Purple" with Oprah Winfrey and "Evita," estimates that one-third of the audience to "After Midnight" is African-American, drawn to the music, costumes and the rich cultural heritage being explored. Many on the stage are also making their Broadway debuts, such as Julius "iGlide" Chisolm and Virgil "Lil O" Gadson.
The bump in diversity is something stage and film producer Matthew Weaver is cheering. He helped create "Rock of Ages" on Broadway and plans to stage another show around "Soul Train" in the future.
"We didn't plan this, it's just good luck in timing, but I think it's the perfect time to have a show like this on Broadway," he said. "I think 'Soul Train' does have the opportunity to get everybody - young, old, black, white, gay, straight. And I think there's an opportunity, especially for the younger audience, to discover this music."
Attracting a diverse audience is critical to Broadway's long-term health since producers have seen audience levels fall for two consecutive seasons. The average age of the Broadway theatergoer is 42.5 years, 68 percent of audiences were female and a whopping 78 percent of all tickets were bought by whites in 2011-12, according to The Broadway League, the group that represents producers.
"I'm seeing every type of person and that's what's exciting to me," McDonald said of her audience. "I'm seeing young people, and middle-aged people and young people. I'm seeing people who were alive when Billie Holiday was alive, I'm seeing young African-American girls, 15-16 years old. And everything in between."
Sanders doesn't believe there's a secret to attracting non-traditional Broadway theatergoers. It's about putting on a memorable show and getting good word of mouth. Just landing a movie star like Washington isn't necessarily the answer.
"It's right under your nose: If you're a producer and you produce a show that has an appeal to an audience, they'll come. It's as simple as programing," he said.
"I don't think there's a gigantic barrier. I don't think African-Americans are sitting at home saying, 'How can I not go to Broadway?' I think if there's something that interests them, they will come."