Amber Iman, one of the founding members of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, noted during one of three June re-education sessions “Broadway for Black Lives Matter Again” that while some show casts are more inclusive than those of productions past, “it starts from the top.” If you want more Black artists onstage and backstage, you need Black directors, designers, choreographers, and casting directors. If you want more Black directors, designers, choreographers, and casting directors, you need Black producers.
“Producer” is also a term that can mean many things. Typically, a lead producer is not only a primary investor or moneyraiser but the creative lead on the show. They put together the creative team for a production, often pairing writers with composer-lyricists or composer-lyricist teams and directors. Most importantly, a lead producer controls the message—how to market and advertise, final approvals on anything to do with the show. Producers at a lower level have varying degrees of creative input and varying degrees of financial commitment, depending on the show. The current demand for more Black (and Indigenous and POC) producers is a rallying cry for inclusion at every level.
Though, there are not enough producers of color on Broadway, there are a select few who have broken down barriers. This is part of a series Spotlight on Black Broadway Producers. Of course, there are other marginalized communities that also need more representation in leadership positions; the Black community is a place to start. In this series, read these producers’ personal stories, hopes for what theatre looks like upon its post-COVID return, and individual approaches to producing for the stage. Next up: Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey.
A Team Reinvents the Classics Through a D&I Lens
Headed up by Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey, Front Row Productions burst onto Broadway in 2008 with a starry revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The twist, as theatregoers will recall, was an all-Black cast for a Tennessee Williams play always starring white people on Broadway. Anika Noni Rose, Terrance Howard, Phylicia Rashad, and James Earl Jones played the main quartet, led by Debbie Allen in her Main Stem directorial debut.
As producers, the pair selected the Tennessee Williams classic because of its longstanding familiarity with Black audiences. “I saw a lane between Tyler Perry and August Wilson which had not been addressed,” says Byrd. “I knew Black people who were characters in this play—there’s nothing unique that lent itself to white casting only.”
Despite being their first Broadway producing gig, Byrd brought his knowledge as a film producer and Jones-Harvey brought her education in arts administration and marketing. After Broadway, the production moved to the West End where it won the Olivier Award for Best Revival of a Play.
It wasn’t without its challenges, though. “The script that Debbie chose was challenged by the press for not being the original text,” says Jones-Harvey. “[Williams] wrote seven versions of the play. We went through an education process to bring [the press] along as to why there was validity in presenting this.”
Their mission: Today, Byrd and Jones-Harvey have mounted nine productions on Broadway, earning four Tony nominations for Best Play for The Trip to Bountiful and Eclipsed, Best Revival of a Play for The Iceman Cometh, and Best Musical for Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations. They aim to present projects with people of color on stage and behind-the-scenes, be it an adaptation of a classic with actors of color where precedent hired white performers like A Streetcar Named Desire, or modern original work like Eclipsed.
They also prioritize audience-building in different demographics. During the run of Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed, the producers invited over 10,000 girls and young women, who hadn’t been able to see a Broadway show before, to attend a performance .
Their approach: The pair serve on multiple industry boards—Byrd sits on the Broadway League's Board of Governors while Jones-Harvey is on the Board of Trustees at the American Theatre Wing—and the Broadway League’s speaker’s bureau. “We continue to involve ourselves in the community, and mentor people around the country, getting them connected to regional theatres. We never lost our foresight,” says Byrd, who along with Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin formed a multicultural inclusive committee. “Before this Black Lives Matter really came to fruition, The League and St. Martin were at the forefront a long time ago.”
The pair aligned with industry stalwarts like former Broadway League President Lina Nannan and theatre owners, like the Shuberts and Nederlanders, and recruited new investors to build a bridge of the new kind of Broadway they envision.
“I have never found Broadway not to have been accepting and that’s been my experience from the very inception,” said Byrd when talking about the recent galvanizing of calls to hold the industry accountable for its practices seen as anti-racist by many. “We’re producers and we’re not just passive investors. As producers, the theatre owners know we’re at as much risk as they are.” Now, they’re seeing more people invited to the table.
Advice to new producers: To those who are interested in becoming a producer, Jones-Harvey says experience in management is useful. “If there’s an opportunity regionally, you’ll find a lot of the ins and out of management of the show,” the producer says. On top of that, ”Try to learn what affluent individuals and organizations are investing in theatre so you can build a list of targets for who you’d be going after.”
Impacting the future: Savvy as ever, Byrd and Jones-Harvey believe in the strength of streaming. One unannounced play is already in the works for a streamer. “It’s going to be a while where Broadway is economically viable,” says Byrd. “Streaming is the opportunity to reach audiences who can't come to Broadway for a long time, like international visitors and seniors. It creates a demand for when Broadway comes back.” When it does, Front Row will be ready with a tour launch of Ain’t Too Proud and an unannounced major musical opening in London.