Bright light on Broadway: Trailblazing producer Alia Jones-Harvey is shaking up the Great White Way

Alia Jones-Harvey is a talented, young African-American woman who has produced some of the hottest plays on Broadway in recent and current seasons. While I look forward to a day when these particular details won’t warrant any special attention, we’re not there yet.

Jones-Harvey is part of a small handful of black producers and is the only woman of color currently working as a leading producer on Broadway. This is a major deal — as are many of the productions which have come to life through her creative acumen.

Jones-Harvey’s critical and commercial hit: The Trip to Bountiful

Currently, Jones-Harvey and her partner Stephen C. Byrd are helming their well-received revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, produced through their company, Front Row Productions, in partnership with Foxboro, Inc. This production has garnered Tony nominations for actresses Cicely Tyson and Condola Rashad (daughter of Phylicia Rashad), in addition to nominations for Best Sound Design of a Play, and Best Revival of a Play.

These nominations are especially significant for two reasons; for Cicely Tyson, one of our grande dames of stage and screen, this is her first Tony Award nomination, after many decades in show business, and a three-decade hiatus from the Great White Way. And, after critics have observed the lackluster recognition black productions have received from the Broadway community in recent years, these nominations for successful shows is especially welcome.

For Front Row Productions, it’s been quite a run! To borrow a line from another Broadway favorite, the musical Gypsy, it would seem that everything is coming up roses for Jones-Harvey. How did she get her start?

Going from the business world to Broadway

“It’s an interesting conversation about the angels that show up in your life and present themselves in different ways,” Jones-Harvey, who has a dual degree from Spelman and Georgia Tech, and an MBA from New York University, told theGrio. “I studied entertainment in business school and took several courses on the economics of entertainment, entertainment law, creating treatments, and so many other aspects of the industry.”

Although she has always had a love for the arts, she never saw the entertainment business as a career possibility. Jones-Harvey was discouraged by what was happening in the music industry when she got out of business school, and she had no interest in moving to Los Angeles to work in movies. At first did being a Broadway producer did not seem like an option.

“In my mind I wasn’t someone with substantial wealth to lean on, so I couldn’t see myself in that type of role,” said the Largo, Maryland native.

When she moved to New York for business school, a friend introduced her to Stephen C. Byrd (who also came from a business and finance background), as someone who could help her make the transition from consumer products to financial services. “I was at Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati for many years before deciding to go back to school, and so when I moved to New York that was my goal, to go into finance.”

The makings of the all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

In 1995, Byrd told her about his aspirations of trying to put up a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, and James Earl Jones. “That didn’t happen for many reasons, but he kept the passion.”

Fast forward to 2006 — Byrd approached Jones-Harvey about working with him this time to bring the play to life.

She took a chance and said yes.

“It took two years to get Cat up: Learning the business, pulling the cast together, getting a theater, and of course securing investors, and the right company for the show.” When it all came together, the all-black cast version of Tennessee Williams’ classic, directed by Debbie Allen, and starring Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and James Earl Jones was one of the most successful Broadway plays of 2008.

After making a huge mark by generating over $700,000 in ticket sales, the production then headed to London, where it scored an Olivier Award, London’s equivalent of a Tony.

Next: The super-success of A Streetcar Named Desire

The company then pulled off a successful 16-week run of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker sizzled in the first all-black cast to portray the iconic characters of this play on Broadway.

Being a Broadway producer is not for the faint of heart. In addition to raising a budget that’s anywhere between $2.5 and $4 million for a play (and “into the stratosphere for musicals, $6 or 7 million — and up to Spiderman budgets!” laughed Jones-Harvey), the other challenges are significant.

“You have to be able to balance both the creative and business sides, and being able to put together a commercially appealing show as well as high quality one,” she further explained. “Then you have to deal with all the different elements of the show: A director who has a certain vision that they are trying to fulfill, while you are trying to ensure that it can fit inside of your budget, the real budget, and convince investors that they have viable opportunity. And then you have to attract talent. One of the challenges is the pool of talent when we do a show with just African-American leads; the list of actors who have commercial draw and stage chops, plus the time and willingness to do a show, is not extensive.”

Convincing Broadway investors to go “all-black”

What types of obstacles did she and Byrd face when they presented the concept of an all-black cast to investors? “We heard things like, ‘oh these are gimmicks,’ or ‘is there an audience for this, and will people support this?’ But with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof we kind of dispelled that. It was the biggest grossing play in that season — we did better than several musicals — so we proved that there is an audience for it and an interest. In the beginning it skewed; initially it was more African-American than it was after the reviews, which was interesting. I feel like that spell has been broken because our current production, The Trip to Bountiful has had an extremely diverse audience from day one. Audiences are looking beyond a gimmick to great casting.”

And the larger drama community is recognizing Front Row’s achievements as well. “We are excited that Cicely is being recognized by the Drama desk, the Drama League, the Outer Critics Circle, and the Tony’s; it speaks to great casting and delivery,” James-Harvey said of her role in The Trip to Bountiful. “It doesn’t matter what color she is, she is excellent.”

James-Harvey is pleased to be bringing in a new audience for Broadway. “It has to do with people wanting to see themselves on stage and wanting to identify with the stars who are being cast in those roles. We cater to the traditional theatergoer in a certain sense because the titles we have chosen are classic works with strong themes that we all relate to, across different cultures. The casting is all about drawing in new generations, new audiences, who want to see their favorites; or people who are new to theater.”

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