On a weekend in October, The Commonspace was host to an event I thought for sure was going to flop.
The event in question was a theatrical production of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," a memorable Ntozake Shange play that expresses a full range of the black, female experience. It wasn't that I thought the play was a dud (quite the opposite it turned out to be one of the most powerful performances we've ever had in our public living room), or that the company, OXCA, wasn't prepared (they were in the space rehearsing frequently weeks before the production, and the actresses clearly had their lines down cold).
My fear came about because I just didn't hear much buzz. Folks I knew weren't talking too much about it, I wasn't sure if any of my friends planned to attend, and I even heard some of them talking about other plans for that Friday and Saturday night.
When the members of the OXCA cast and crew showed up toting the dozens of folding chairs they'd borrowed from someone's church in case they needed to accommodate more theater-goers than the 35 or so we had seats for it was all I could do not to laugh humorlessly. Who did they think was coming to this thing?
The show ran for two nights. On Friday, at the 8 p.m. curtain call, there were close to 50 paid patrons in attendance. It was kind of amazing, really, and the show went off flawlessly. The audience really got into the introductory green show, "Colored," written by the main show's director. During the Shange play, we laughed uproariously, groaned along with characters tolerating no-good men and didn't breathe until the end of an emotionally wrenching abuse scene. The seven actresses got a standing ovation.
It's worth mentioning here that the audience was 99% black. Outside of a handful of white patrons (all people I knew), The Commonspace was filled with black visitors (many first-timers), all there to see a play that clearly had buzz working for it outside my social circles.
And the buzz must've been audible all over the place for their friends, because the second night's performance packed in an even bigger audience: when the last few latecomers begged to be allowed to sit on the floor, we finally had to hand-scrawl a sign that said, "Sorry, we are SOLD OUT," and tape it to the front door.
It's an old saw that although the races work, shop and sometimes even live more or less together, there's no bastion more segregated that houses of worship on Sunday morning. After my recent experiences, I'd revise that sentiment to include where we play on Saturday nights. True, there are plenty of places (the Delmar Restaurant and Lounge, the Galleria, Coffee Cartel and breakdancing at The Commonspace, to name a few) where whites and blacks mix socially, but it's still not uncommon for these two worlds to exist on entirely different and uncommunicative social planes.
Being located, as we are, in the heart of the city's arts and entertainment district gives us lots of opportunities to observe this schism. A few weeks ago, without any advertising or information coming across my radar screen, the Fox held a several-night run of "Madea's Class Reunion," a show by a black playwright with a black cast. For days, droves of theatre patrons swarmed the parking lots and sidewalks of Grand Center. They packed into Gary's Fine Dining and People's Coffee for dinner beforehand. Universally, they were black. I don't know if the show was a sell-out every performance, but it was definitely a huge crowd favorite. I have no idea what it was about.
Of course, I'm also not completely familiar with the latest operas coming to town, or who's blasting through Savvis on the country-western circuit; those aren't scenes I have a great interest in, so I don't tend to seek them out. But by virtue of the information outlets I pay attention to, I'd probably at least have heard something about them before they got here. Not so the black teen party scene at clubs in North County, something I'd heard nothing about until I read Randall Roberts' RFT cover story.
When it comes to opening yourself to more and different cultural experiences, part of the challenge is knowing how to put yourself in the path of the necessary information. The "Colored Girls" play, for example, was written up big in the St. Louis American, part of its successful promotion. And you also have to commit to being the change you want to see when you know, then go. The up side to two (or more) parallel entertainment tracks in St. Louis is there's probably at least one whole world you don't know about yet.