Racial Profiling Charge Roils Local Theater


The interior of the Triad, courtesy of the theater.

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.”

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%.”


The Triad is above a restaurant on 72nd Street.

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.”

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.”

NEWS | 35 comments | permalink
    1. ZoomZ says:

      You mean to say that if the band was made of three white dudes they would not have been searched?

    2. idontbuyit says:

      Why do we fail to see the logic in asking the performers about the missing mic? Who else was the tech supposed to inquire with, the audience? Sounds to me like this is shoehorning racial profiling into a situation where it didn’t exist. It’s dangerous people like Robin Kelley that won’t let racism die. Gotta keep the people divided!

    3. bb says:

      Honestly failing to see the racial aspect of this they were probably profiled because they had just used and have a future use for a ‘$600 wireless microphone’.

      The Dr’s write up is very one sided…Were there slurs tossed around? was the tech freaking out because thats probably an entire weeks salary worth of equipment? The daughter’s followup to statement that there is ‘no need to boycott’ is pretty dangerous as well.

      • Juan says:

        Someone’s life can be destroyed if they are called a racist (unless they are the President). But there are no consequences for the person who used the word inappropriately and potentially ruined the other person’s life for no reason.

        Of all people, this professor should know better.

    4. Leon says:

      I was not there so do not know exactly what happened to lead Dr. Kelley to believe this was racially motivated. But based on the description above, I think that he owes the theater a huge apology for really blowing something out of proportion.

      The mic was missing. Regardless of their race, the performers are as logical a guess as anyone as to who had it, as they probably had recently had the mic in their possession. It sounds like the tech could have been more friendly and professional in approaching them, but unless he used specific racist terms, it is really jumping to conclusions to assume his behavior was driven by race.

      And it sounds like there is a very clear explanation for why they were not being paid immediately, so I don’t know why this even came up. A PhD should know to get his facts straight before jumping to conclusions.

      There are unfortunately way too many incidences of racist behavior in society today. By crying wolf in a situation like this, it takes away the legitimacy of situations where racism truly is an issue.

    5. wombatNYC says:

      Sorry – Not Racial Profiling . I would have done the same if they were white , yellow , brown or red .
      Missing Mic , Panicked Employee tough situation but I would have checked bags as well

    6. Dave says:

      Why is it just assumed that this was motivated by racism? If the tech was panicked that he would be blamed for the loss of expensive equipment, isn’t it reasonable to assume that he would approach any young musicians the same way in these circumstances? While racism clearly exists, knee jerk reactions like this are just unfair to all involved.

    7. LK says:

      I absolutely believe Peter Martin. When people panic they do irrational things. Human reaction in a lot of the cases to a missing item would be – “they stole it”. It’s how we act on it that matters. Responsible person would catch breath and try to act in a reasonable way – clearly the tech didn’t. I can also see that witnessing this would be traumatic ( regardless of color ). I can sympathize with an African American person witnessing this because the perception, and trauma, would be amplified. However, calling for boycott on social media is no less impulsive, in my mind, than searching the performers. The whole situation just underscores that we live in an impulsive society, where we have the means to inflict damage on others and we are not afraid to use it. Is there a second-chance social media? Obviously, James Brandon Lewis is the man who deserves praise for his performance on and off the stage.

      • Jeff says:

        Who cares what color! It doesn’t matter. This is reverse profiling at its worst. This is where things get out of hand, trying to put a small business out. Get over your thin skin and act like a true American. He is a racist Dr. or not.

      • CM says:

        While I can understand misperceptions and haste to judgement. My problem is the searching of each and every item of the musicians. Apparently they were not believed by this tech. Black people take offense to the lack of trust by so many and the unwillingness by some white people, not to be believed without being investigated. Apologies have been given and many are willing to move on, but the bitter taste of lack of being trusted will linger in many minds. To boycott or not will be up to individuals and will not be executed by the misgivings of one individual. Regular customers will probably continue to attend and new ones may be enticed to check them out. I wish all well and a lesson well learned regarding rhe rush to judgement……

    8. Speaky says:

      As someone who frequently speaks to large audiences using the client’s audio equipment, I can tell you that it’s not unusual for an audio tech to chase you down asking if you still have a mic, and then to look you up and down to see if it’s on your body. I’ve had them follow me out of hotels.

      It’s their butt on the line if they lose a piece of equipment so, while it’s annoying, it’s understandable. I’m an old, wealthy, white guy, but have never felt my response in that situation should be, “I’m rich enough to buy 100 microphones! How dare you accuse me of stealing your equipment!!!”

      Maybe folks should assume no ill intent unless ill intent is obvious. Sad that all whites are now considered racist until proven otherwise.

    9. Frank says:

      This is ridiculous. I’m sure they would have asked the band what happened to the mike even if they were white, yellow or green. Why must we turn everything into racial profiling?

    10. Jen says:

      Very disappointed with WSR presentation of the story. They right away assumed it was racially charged even though the simple facts don’t necessarily point to it.

    11. joan says:

      o start with the band better get paid and get a big apology and the tech guy better be fired.

    12. Bruce E. Bernstein says:

      first of all, Dr. Robin DG Kelley is a renowned historian and cultural theorist at UCLA, he has a worldwide reputation for his writings. I think he can identify race-based profiling when he sees it, or at the very least, he should be given the benefit of the doubt. he was pretty thorough in his write-up.

      Apparently those commenters who are claiming that Kelley is “dangerous”, “won’t let racism die”, that he was “crying wolf” and had a “knee jerk reaction” didn’t bother to read carefully what he wrote in the tweet:

      “Nobody in the band used or saw the mysterious mic, but apparently that did not matter… the stage manager begins to ask the band about the mic in an aggressive and accusatory manner…”

      Do you really think this is par for the course with white musicians? Do you think that Kelley is incapable of documenting what happened accurately, and assessing whether it was normal or unusual? Do you think that African-American males do not face a host of accusations routinely, accusations that are rarely if ever presented to whites?

      We have too much racism in our own “liberal” Upper West Side community. To see it, all you have you have to do is read the WSR regularly. How many commenters have called for the return of racial-profiling based “stop and frisk”? More than a few… way way too many. And they always do so while insisting that they are not racist and that “the real racists” are people opposed to this disgusting practice.

      I am tired of people making the argument that race-based “stop and frisk” is not the epitome of a racist policy. If you haven’t looked into it, haven’t bothered to check out how hundreds of thousands of African-American males in this city were routinely stopped and aggressively questioned for no reason other than having darker skin, all while Bloomberg was Mayor, then you are willfully blind to racial discrimination. In fact, i would say you are part of the problem and not part of the solution, and should spend a little time reading some of Dr. Kelley’s books.

      Racism is a scourge in this city. As the kids like to say, if you don’t realize that, “get woke.”

      • Harold says:

        Bruce old chap,
        I hope your back is in good shape as you really bent over backward a few miles to defend the professor.,
        Most likely this was not a racist act.
        Just read comments from people in this business and in the know.
        The professor may have a chip on his shoulder. He may be known the world over for his writing, but maybe, just maybe, he may be racist himself. It does go both ways – ya know that Bruce, right?

        • Leon says:

          Amen. Bruce constantly feels the need to take the reactionary, contrarian viewpoint on this site. He is the liberal version of Breitbart click bait, and he gives the rest of us more reasonable, grounded liberals a really bad name.

          As I noted above, acts of racism unfortunately still happen way too often. This is not a case of racism, and by crying wolf here, it is hurting the legitimacy of future claims. I appreciate the other posts in this thread that show that what happened was very normal, regardless of the race of the performer.

          I think Dr. Kelley is experiencing a bad case of confirmation bias. Having academic degrees and a big title does not make one flawless.

          • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

            Leon is very proud of his “reasonable, grounded” liberalism, but in his personal attacks on Dr. Kelley (and myself), he gets some important facts wrong.

            Leon said (above):

            “It sounds like the tech could have been more friendly and professional in approaching them, but unless he used specific racist terms, it is really jumping to conclusions to assume his behavior was driven by race.”

            In most cases, racially discriminatory behavior does not involve using “specific racist terms.” The issue is disparate treatment by race. Clearly, there was disparate treatment here, in that only the three young African-American musicians were accused and searched, though there were obviously many people on the premises who could have taken the mic.

            Were the African-Americans singled out BECAUSE of their race? I have no idea. But Dr. Kelley’s testimony — quite specific, and none of his facts have been disputed, at least about the mic incident. (apparently it is normal not to pay the musicians the same night.) In fact, both Peter Martin and Lee SUmmers confirm his account, and state how unfortunate the behavior was, how the tech made a “big mistake”, how it was a “unique” incident, and so on.

            Liberal Leon says:

            “Regardless of their race, the performers are as logical a guess as anyone as to who had it, as they probably had recently had the mic in their possession.”

            Once again, you didn’t bother to read Dr. Kelley’s undisputed account. He said: “no one in the band had used or saw the mysterious mic, but apparently that did not matter.”

            My criticism here is not with the Triad. Peter MArtin seems to be a concerned and decent person, and he handled it in the right way. My criticism is all of the commenters, including Leon, who choose to trash Dr. Kelley and not take his account seriously.

            I actually think Dr. Kelley did a favor to the Triad Theater in documenting what happened. It is better to have these things out in the open.

            by the way, in response to Leon’s post, UWSHebrew made a blatantly racist post, trying to stereotype a “scourge” of “terrifying” violence by African-Americans against “Law abiding citizens”, based on one deranged man. This sort of stereotyping goes far beyond a dog whistle, has nothing to do with the discussion, and in fact proves my point. But Leon chose to attack me for backing up Dr. Kelley while ignoring the racial-stereotyping post.

      • Denton says:

        Very well put Bruce. Thank you.

      • UWSHebrew says:

        Racism is not a scourge in the city. What is a scourge in this city is violence against law abiding citizens. Here is just one recent terrifying example

        http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ny-metro-robber-attacks-workers-two-manhattan-stores-20180910-story.html

        • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

          this posting/comment by UWSHebrew is a sickening example of racial stereotyping. in other words, it’s racist.

          he first denied the existence of racism in our city, denying it’s a “scourge.” he then, as a non-sequitor, says that the real scourge is violence against “law abiding citizens”, and presents a pic of a video of a deranged African-American man.

          this sort of promotion of stereotypes to encourage fear and hatred towards various oppressed racial, ethinic, and/ or religious minority groups are hallmarks of white wing supremacist movements and regimes. for example, check out Nazi portrayals of Jews in the 1920s and 30s.

          this is pretty much par for the course for this particular commenter, but nevertheless it deserves to be called out for what it is.

    13. Aphasian says:

      Not to presume, but it seems likely that all the above commenters are white. (if not please correct me)

      The anti-black racism I have witnessed on the UWS (I am not black) has generally been subtle and come from otherwise liberal, progressive, nice people. But it is real!

    14. Bruce E. Bernstein says:

      by the way, Peter Martin (the manager/owner) admits in his statement that the freelancer was at fault:

      “A freelance tech made a big mistake… this aberrant, awful behavior of the tech person who realizes he was wrong and is literally in tears about this… (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.”

      Martin doesn’t feel that racism was behind the “inappropriate communication.” Well and good, i wasn’t there, don’t know the tech, and i always like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

      But why on earth would anyone attack Dr. Kelley for pointing out how awful that behavior was?

    15. VU says:

      The only people guilty of racial profiling in this story are Dr. Robin RG Kelly and his daughter.

    16. Tomtom says:

      Dr Kelley sounds like the racist

      • CM says:

        I am an older black woman that has lived on the West Side for the past 50 years. So not all that have posted are white…….

    17. nycityny says:

      Racism is such a broad term. It can reveal itself in blatant actions or be at a subliminal level that one does not even realize exists within themselves.

      That the technician was panicking at losing the mic was a human and normal reaction. How he presented himself to the musicians was clearly informed by how little he trusted their denial of having it. Would he have responded differently to a white band? Might his request to search their belongings have been more respectful or less confrontational? Would he have even insisted on such an inspection? We will never know.

      The professor saw it one way and, well, I suspect he is more attuned to racist behavior (overt and subliminal) than most of the white posters on this blog. That one poster here accuses him of having a “chip on his shoulder” is a dog-whistle response that speaks for itself.

    18. JOEY INFANTE says:

      WITH ALL THIS SAID APOLOGIES HAVE BEEN MADE AND SOMETIMES AN EARLIER PERFORMER USING THE CORDLESS MIKE IN A RUSH TO LEAVE THE THEATER BECAUSE THERE IS ANOTHER ACT FOLLOWING MAY HAVE UNCONSCIONABLY PACKED THE MIKE.I AM NOT INSINUATING (IT’S ONLY AN EXAMPLE” THAT THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED IN THIS CASE OR PUTTING BLAME ON THE FIRST ACT OF THE EVENING. I HAVE SEEN IT HAPPEN BEFORE AT ANOTHER CLUB AND THE MIKE WAS FOUND AFTER THREE DAYS INSIDE THE GRAND PIANO WHICH WAS OPENED DURING THE PERFORMANCE. PERFORMERS GET VERY NERVOUS AND EXCITED AND DO THING UNAWARE. A TOTAL SEARCH SHOULD BE DONE OF THE STAGE FLOORS, BEHIND AND UNDER THE CURTAINS AND THE SMALL DRESSING ROOM INCLUDING THE INSIDE OF THE PIANO. CORDLESS MIKES ARE EXPENSIVE I ADMIT I LOST MINE ON THE WAY TO A GIG IN LAS VEGAS..I THOUGHT..AND WAS VERY UPSET AND WHEN I GOT BACK HOME I FOUND IT ON TOP OF MY BED ..I NEVER PACKED IT LOL. THE CASINO LOANED ME THEIR MIKE. YOU FIND THE MIKE ON THE STAND WHEN YOU GO ON, PUT IT BACK BEFORE U WALK OFF! I HAVE PERFORMED AT THE TRIAD THEATER SEVERAL TIMES AND FOUND THE VENUE ON THE UP AND UP AND EVERY ONE WAS PLEASANT AND HELPFUL MANAGER’S NAME AT THE TIME WAS MICHAEL.I THINK THE BAND SHOULD TAKE THE OFFER TO COME BACK ALL EXPENSES PAID !! I LOVE THE TRIAD AND WILL BE PERFORMING AGAIN THERE IN THE SPRING ..HAVE A GREAT DAY EVERYONE ..PEACE BE WITH YOU..SHIT HAPPENS AND WE GO ON !!!LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL !

    19. Q says:

      In the words of Avenue Q “Everyone’s a little bit racist!”

      • tailfins says:

        Finally – a reasonable comment.

        Ending racism may be a foolhardy effort.

        Recognizing racism and adjusting your behavior – that’s possible.

        First, though, you have to acknowledge the truth: everyone is a little racist.

        All these “real racist” commenters above have a ways to go before they move from “part of the problem” to “part of the solution”.

        As to the specific issue: the fact that the (white) freelance tech thought that he could do that a group of (black) famous musicians is the point. If you think a tech would have searched the bands for Neko Case or Joan Baez (using upcoming Beacon acts as an example)? Or do you think the tech would have known he was risking his job by doing that? There was a clear power dynamic – famous musician and freelance tech. But, because of the racial difference, the white guy felt it within his rights to stop the black people and have them searched. No matter how hard you’ve worked, no matter what credibility you’ve built, as a person of color, you’re always at the whim of the random white person who decides you’re a threat.

        • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

          very well said, Tailfins. you hit the nail on the head.

          and it is telling how many commenters are trashing Dr. Kelley, calling him “the real racist” and so on. they haven’t even read carefully what he actually wrote.

    20. stu says:

      This is a complex issue and very relevant in today’s day and age. Dr Kelley is a very esteemed academic and cultural voice (and Jazz expert!). His wife is a high profile actress. His words carry a great deal of weight and he needs to be sensitive to the power of social media, for both the good and bad. As a minority myself, I am sensitive to the implications a “search” like the one performed by the tech can have on an African American. It can be very triggering. But too often we use neutral acts — such as a common “search” — as a soapbox for social change, to the detriment of the person involved. While Dr Kelley’s and his daughter’s ultimate intentions are good — as are those of other activists — they need to think twice before pressing send on their iPhone. He should apologize.

    21. Roxy says:

      As someone who has done shows at the Triad, I can attest that Mr. Martin and any staff I’ve had contact with are thoroughly professional and accommodating to the artists who work with them. This sounds like a one-time incident/misunderstanding that hand nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the professor using this as an opportunity to overlay his own pre-conceived grievances on the incident and get his name in out in the increasingly noxious world of social media where reputations and businesses can be ruined in a flash. The Triad is an intimate jewel of a theater that has prevailed against all odds – how many cabaret rooms/nightclubs are left in this age of Amazon and Netflix? Please – enough of this insanity. The club apologized, the tech apologized. Let this club continue in it’s mission without this social media harassment. And as far as not being paid, as previously mentioned, the Triad does not collect box office for the performers, it goes through a ticketing service. I’ve never had an issue being paid by the Triad.

    22. George says:

      This is silly. Easy fix for me. I just bought tickets to a show for my wife and me.

      Thanks,

      G