LIMA — Charlie Thomas looked through the list of bands booked for the “Rally in the Square” last season.
Of the 17 weeks, he saw one band of African-Americans. He said he questioned organizers about the lack of diversity.
“I was told that, as a free concert, the money is made by selling beer and that black people do not buy as much beer as the people who come for the other bands,” said Thomas, a former radio personality who went by “The Raven” on his Sunday evening jazz show. “I said, ‘You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that there are issues with drugs and alcohol and then not bring in bands for this community because not enough alcohol is purchased.’”
Blacks make up a quarter of the residents of Lima, it would seem logical to have more entertainment geared toward the demographic, Thomas said. Looking at the schedule of events in the area for 2016, it does not show much that would draw specifically African-Americans or even radio stations that would play music to cross racial preferences, he said.
It’s true of most entertainment venues. Save a handful of R&B acts at the Upper Lounge at Old City Prime in downtown Lima, there just isn’t much for the black community, said Sharetta Smith, a Perry graduate who relocated to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Lima has an offering of movies, bowling, skating and the mall for young people but not the entertainment young black people want to see, she said.
“I think that culturally and socially, Lima is not a very friendly place to African-Americans,” Smith said. “A lot of times, some of the movies that we want to see don’t come there. The concerts are not there. Even the Rally on the Square is not really music we’d listen to, along with acts at the Allen County Fair. So culturally, I think African-Americans are ignored.”
Attracting the acts
Cindy Wood, the CEO of Veterans Memorial Civic Center, understands the concern. The public venue in the heart of the city relies on outside promoters to rent the space and schedule events, limiting what genres come through the doors.
“We have promoters who come from Chicago, Nashville, L.A., etc., and unfortunately Lima has been labeled as a classic rock and country demographic, so there are many genres such as R&B, hip hop and pop, to name just a few, that are unfilled.”
Thomas asserts the demand is here, though, as he saw with a jazz show downtown years ago.
“We used to sponsor programs on the rooftop of the downtown parking garage, and we had almost 1,000 people,” Thomas said. “We did it as benefits for schools and stuff like that. I would bring in local artists, have a stage and some tables set up, and the people loved it.”
Wood also stressed that it’s not just a matter of getting an artist and a date.
“When a community puts in an offer for X thousands of dollars, they are at the mercy of the management and agencies that are managing those tours,” she said, “So say if ‘John Smith’ isn’t available on the date we’re asking for within a four- to six-hour drive, he’s not coming. Agencies also consider market size demographic, ticket prices of a certain artist, advertising and then look to see if a bigger city can give them a better offer. The demand for dates and artists is much greater than the supply, and it is a ‘chemical mix’ almost of the right ingredients of so many things.”
Reluctance to travel
Nearby venues haven’t had much success capturing the black demographic’s interest either.
Jerica Humphrey, interim director of the Freed Center for the Performing Arts in Ada, is black and said she’s willing to bring African-American talent and perspective to the Freed. Last year, she received a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to help pay for three outside productions, one of which, “Raisin’ Cain,” was a one-woman show about the Harlem Renaissance.
She said even these kinds of productions don’t draw blacks from Lima.
“They don’t come to Ada because it’s too far for them,” she said. “My church is in Lima and I’m very active in my church, and that’s what they say. And historically the area has not been very inviting.”
Executives at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center say offering family-friendly entertainment that inspires, entertains and educates is their primary mission. The diversity that they are seeking comes in the artistic programs they offer, and if that brings in black performers, all the better. But racial diversity is not, in itself, a goal there.
“We don’t go into our programming saying we need different (colors) of skin,” said Tafi Stober, marketing director of the 1,200-seat Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert. “We are picking genres of music, so they (black performers) fit the genre we were seeking.”
“We’ve stuck to our guns, say, with jazz,” said executive director Paul Hoverman, noting that jazz is not as popular as Christian or country music in the Van Wert area. “In fact, we’ve got a lot of comments from a lot of people in the Lima area that say, ‘We love to come to Niswonger because you get some things that we enjoy and they don’t do this in Lima. And I don’t know why they don’t do it, but we’re happy to come over and support what you do.’”
The 2015-2016 season at NPAC is all-white, but the previous two years have had appearances by black musicians such as The Temptations, The Spinners, R&B legends Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., pianist Leon Bates and the comedian Sinbad.
Reporters Amy Eddings and Craig Kelly contributed to this story. Janet Ferguson is a regular contributor to The Lima News. Reach her at [email protected]