By Carol Tannenhauser
An incident occurred last Friday night at the Triad Theater on West 72nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, resulting in accusations of racial profiling that blew up on social media. Triad owner Peter Martin fears it could bring down the 23-year-old off-Broadway theater.
It started as a nice night of jazz with some top musicians.
On Friday, September 7th, at 9:30 p.m., the James Brandon Lewis Trio, a critically acclaimed jazz ensemble, launched its 2018 fall tour at the Triad.
In the audience was Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, a noted UCLA professor, historian, author, and expert on African-American studies, with his daughter, Elleza D.G. Kelley.
A freelance tech was working the show that night. After the musicians had completed their set and were packing their gear, the tech approached them and said that a $600 wireless microphone had gone missing. Professor Kelley witnessed the encounter, describing it in a subsequent Facebook post:
“Longstoryshort, the stage manager begins to ask the band about the mic in an aggressive and accusatory manner! Right before our eyes, a world-renowned jazz ensemble was being racially profiled. The cat eventually asked to search their bags and cases. I stood aghast as this white dude rummaged through [the bass player’s] bass case. I wish I had the forethought to take a picture. More than once James had to tell the people who run the Triad Theater that they were ‘reputable.’ But they were three young Black men. The racism was startlingly overt; the whole encounter was deplorable. And to add insult to injury, the theater did not pay the band!!!
“That’s how we left it. The James Brandon Lewis Trio played a magnificent set and they left The Triad humiliated, incensed over their treatment, and without their earnings. I’m not sure when or if they will be paid, but I do know we should not patronize that place. Feel free to spread the word.”
The musicians did not have the missing microphone (which still hasn’t been located). Dr. Kelley posted his message on Facebook at 9:16 Saturday morning. His daughter shared the page on her Twitter account at 2:51 p.m., with the introduction, “Here’s my dad on the despicable and unbearably banal reality of ‘gigging while black.’ This happened last night in NYC.”
Here’s my dad on the despicable and unbearably banal reality of “gigging while black.” This happened last night in NYC. pic.twitter.com/IV0qKrMsUW
— elleza kelley (@ellezakelley) September 8, 2018
The retweets began immediately (at latest count, reaching 1,979.)
That’s when a tipster alerted West Side Rag. We contacted Peter Martin, 54, who was distraught.
“It’s been awful, horrendous,” he said, in a telephone interview on Sunday. “Imagine if you spent 23 years trying to build a business and, then, in an instant, because a freelance tech made a big mistake — the harm to the theater’s reputation is just awful. We’re not a big company. We’re a small business that’s just trying to survive on the Upper West Side. You see the openings and closings on 72nd Street. Everything we earn we put back into it. We have longtime employees. Two of our key people are African-American. They wouldn’t be there for years if we didn’t treat everybody with great respect. Unfortunately, they’re tagging the theater for this aberrant, awful behavior of the tech person who realizes he was wrong and is literally in tears about this.”
Martin insists the tech’s behavior was not motivated by race.
“I don’t think the ‘Freelance Tech Person’ in question is racist at all,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “He’s a very sweet man and he had received universal praise before the incident from every performer we received feedback from. I think what happened is, when the $600 wireless mic went missing between shows (and since he didn’t follow our policy and have the mic locked up) he panicked and instead of just accepting the mic was gone had inappropriate communication with the performers. If the artist were White, Asian or African American — I don’t think that had anything to do with it. He’s been in tears and devastated by what happened and immensely remorseful. That being said we have suspended him pending a continuing investigation.”
As for the other issue of why the artists weren’t paid, Martin offered the following explanation: “People don’t get paid that night. The deal is, they get paid within seven to 12 days, because we have to wait for the ticketing company to pay us. Then we immediately pay. No venue pays that night when you do online ticketing. They will be paid 100%.”
With the number of retweets multiplying, negative reviews began appearing on Yelp, a string of them repeating what they had read in Dr. Kelley’s post and calling for a boycott. Meanwhile, the former General Manager and an ongoing booker for the Triad, Lee Summers, posted the following comment on Dr. Kelley’s Facebook page:
“Hi Robin, Lee Summers here. I am a booker for the Triad Theatre. I would love to speak with you because apparently the band and you had a uniquely unfortunate experience at the venue last night. As a person of color and a former General Manager of the Triad — and ongoing booker — I can assure you this venue is historically a safe space for artists and patrons of color. Everyone at the venue regrets how things went south and we’d like to explore ways to remedy this situation. Feel free to inbox me.”
The Triad also issued a statement on its Facebook page, saying “We have reached out to the band to extend our sincerest apology for the sole action of one freelance tech person. We offered the artist a return engagement with our venue covering all expenses.”
— Triad Theater, NYC (@The_TriadNYC) September 11, 2018
On Monday, September 10th, Elleza D.G. Kelley tweeted, “UPDATE: Thanks to this overwhelming response @The_TriadNYC has issued an apology and removed the person responsible. So there is no need to boycott. Of course, this is a larger issue, but their response is a step in the right direction and should be recognized. Thanks!”
When asked by email for his response to the controversy swirling around him, James Brandon Lewis, the man with the saxophone at the center of it all, emailed back, “Hello thanks for contacting, I live a low key life, when not promoting a gig, I am moving forward lots of music to be made, they apologized, I am moving forward.”