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With an ode to Black Broadway at an NBA game, Broadway reaches an untapped audience: sports fans

Eight weeks ago, Broadway marketer Whitney Britt of the brand partnership group Two Dog Circus got a text from the Brooklyn Nets. As part of the NBA team's Black History Month commemoration, they were planning to host a themed night for each of the seven home games in the month of February.

Back row: André De Shields, George Faison, Warren Adams, Emil Wilbekin, T. Oliver Reid; Front row: David Robertson, Kiwan Anderson, Erich McMillan-McCall (Photo credit: Lia Chang)

Eight weeks ago, Broadway marketer Whitney Britt of the brand partnership group Two Dog Circus got a text from the Brooklyn Nets. As part of the NBA team’s Black History Month commemoration, they were planning to host a themed night for each of the seven home games in the month of February. For example, one night was dedicated to Caribbean culture and another to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. February 28 would be a tribute to Black Broadway. Could a partnership with the Main Stem be possible?

Britt kicked it into high gear. While the Nets’ senior director of entertainment Criscia Long had already solidified that former “MJ” cast member Darius Wright would sing the pre-game National Anthem and that the halftime show would highlight Nets dancers in a tribute to “The Wiz,” Britt worked with Nets staff to “punch it up a couple more levels” by bringing in Broadway connections.

The event became a 360-degree Black Broadway experience. Britt integrated her client, Black Theatre Coalition (BTC), as a partner. “The players — NBA and especially WNBA — are activists that drive social change, which of course is the perfect pairing with Black Theatre Coalition trying to change the face of the industry,” said Britt. BTC was thrilled to join in a unique way, as co-founder T. Oliver Reid said, “to celebrate the work of Black professionals in the American theater and on Broadway.”

BTC fellows and apprentices, as well as cast members from Broadway’s upcoming “Fat Ham” and professionals from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the Entertainment Community Fund filled a section of the stadium to represent Broadway in the Brooklyn-homed Barclays Center.

On the arena’s concourse, Britt arranged for the Museum of Broadway to showcase pieces from its “Wiz” exhibit, including the signature “Ease on Down the Road” neon sign. Throughout the night, select spectators were able to answer Broadway trivia questions to win tickets to shows like “Fat Ham,” “Aladdin” and “Some Like It Hot,” as well as passes to the Museum of Broadway. Dance routines during time-outs highlighted shows like “Dreamgirls.”

But the pièce de résistance came at halftime.

Not only did Broadway dancers Justin Prescott and Olutayo Bosede co-choreograph a medley from “The Wiz” — as coordinated by the Nets’ very own Long — but the show featured André De Shields in the role he originated, the musical’s titular character, on the stadium’s jumbotron. Britt said, “Being able to bring André to the table, to use a sports analogy, was my assist to [Long’s] goal.”

“When you have to produce so many games a season, [the Nets] would still sell tickets and have a basketball game, whether or not I got André De Shields there,” Britt acknowledged. “But I think if you really wanna call this game the ‘Ode to Black Broadway,’ I don’t know how I could not get André De Shields.”

André De Shields as The Wiz on the jumbotron at Barclays Center (Photo credit: Brooklyn Nets)

To make it happen, BTC co-founder and “Hadestown” associate choreographer Reid contacted his Tony Award-winning former castmate De Shields, who proudly accepted the invitation. The iconic performer donned his own showstopping ensemble to prerecord the video that would air as part of halftime — and marking his first appearance in the role of The Wiz since 2015.

As Britt said, every part of the experience elevated the overall event so that when this “Broadway tree fell in the woods,” basketball fans and Broadway devotees would hear it.

In a time when audience development — specifically outreach to new audiences — is crucial for the health of the industry, the evening offered a massive stage for Broadway away from the usual district. “Building relationships outside the normal Broadway arena allows us to grow audiences where we have never thought to look and to hopefully show another generation of potential theater professionals that there is a job, a career, a life in the theater for them, too,” said Reid. “We continue our mission to remove the illusion of inclusion in the American theater and increase the working opportunities by 500 percent by 2030 with each partnership we make.”

In terms of audience outreach, Britt sees the connection between sports and theater as a huge opportunity that has sat unused for too long. “I just feel so strongly about taking Broadway outside of those 20 blocks for audience development, for more eyeballs,” she said. “Obviously sports and theater are so closely entwined, so incredibly the same and also so incredibly different, but basically the Nets are doing seven opening nights — in our words — this month with different themes.”

This particular night also presented a chance for multiple Broadway shows and organizations to collaborate. “This is an opportunity for multiple theater entities to get a win,” said Britt. “I like playing in this kind of space where it is for the betterment of the whole ecosystem.”

“I think this is the beginning of something that we could be talking about for next season, further in advance and finding different ways to plug people in,” Britt continued. “Each game has so many touch points. It’s 18,000 people there every night. It’s a marketing opportunity that feels untapped. Sure, Broadway people sing the Anthem all the time, but I think there are just so many more ways to play.”