Looking at the Centerstage audience at last week's opening of The Homecoming, I was struck by what is arguably Irene Lewis' greatest accomplishment—diversifying the theater. The outgoing artistic director made that a priority over the past two decades, and it shows. Not only was the crowd younger than what you see at most theaters, it was racially diverse.
A Centerstage rep confirms that, according to a 2008 survey, the theater's non-white audience comprised "30% of our single ticket purchases, and it has been noted that the majority of our top-grossing shows, including many August Wilson plays such as Jitney and Radio Golf, as well as Ain’t Misbehavin’ and this year’s The Wiz, have been African American focused shows."
She also sent along the following artistic statement that Lewis submitted as part of a grant proposal last year...
When I became artistic director 20 years ago, I noticed that our subscribers were all like myself—old and white. This, in Baltimore, a majority minority city. So I decided to alter our programming; in fact I set out to make a seismic shift by diversifying the entire institution. We began devoting a third of each season to depictions of the Black experience, for two main reasons: first, I was personally interested in these stories; and second, I hoped to build a sizable African American audience by helping the community feel this was their theater, too. I’m happy to say that—with much help and generous patience from key supporters—this seems to have worked out, and we’re a more vibrant theater as a result.
That's for sure. And let's not forget that, during Lewis' tenure, the likes of Spalding Gray, Anna Deavere Smith, Eric Bogosian, and Carl Hancock Rux brought memorable one-man/woman shows to Centerstage.
Lewis leaves behind an impressive legacy, and she's also positioned the theater for a bright future.