Remembering black Broadway trailblazers of the past

While this lady is a trailblazer, the theater business isn’t totally bereft of people of color behind the scenes. A few prominent names come to mind you should know:

Playwright and director George C. Wolfe is highly notable for his work at New York City’s Public Theater.

Irene Gandy, renowned Broadway press agent, produced Sarafina! and the 2011 revival of Porgy and Bess.

Actress and producer Tamara Tunie produced the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening and August Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf in recent seasons.

Of course, right now Berry Gordy is having a rousing success with Motown the Musical; but the percentage of African-Americans making business decisions and producing is small on the New York City theater scene. We are most certainly in the minority.

“The term producer now has a different meaning for different people,” Jones-Harvey said. “I term myself a professional producer because I do it full time and that’s the difference between what Stephen and I do and what a lot of other producers do. There are investors, but they are not involved in the day-to-day of the production. So I’ve created the term ‘professional producer’ (laughs). We are the African-Americans doing that on Broadway now.”

And, as in any profession, role models are important. “I revere producers like Kenneth Harper, who is not talked about much these days, but he was the producer of The Wiz in the ’70s and I can only imagine the challenges he faced in bringing it to Broadway,” she added. “But the fact that show ran for five years, won seven Tonys, and was a blockbuster success is a testament to how wonderful it was.”

Expanding the roles of blacks on Broadway — behind the scenes

One of the mandates of Front Row is to educate more African-American investors about the opportunities for investing on Broadway, risks and all. “Broadway needs to be more inclusive because traditionally it has been a very small club,” she said. “The broader that we can extend the pool of potential investors, the more opportunity there is to see diversity in the shows we produce. Another important aspect are the backstage and behind the scenes positions. These are great union jobs with benefits, and we need to be out there.”

In keeping with the tradition of playing it forward, Jones-Harvey, who taught this past spring at City College, will repeat her Producing for Broadway course this fall. “Once again, the idea is that the more of us that are out there, the more great options there will be on Broadway.”

Being a black Broadway producer: 101

In addition to the right knowledge, she says that to get it all right, the stars really have to align. “You need the right theater, and it’s all about timing. I mean there are only about 40 buildings that you can go into, so it’s competitive. There are always 20 to 25 shows on the waiting list, so you are always vying for the size of the theater you want, and the location and time that you want it, so all of that being able to happen is miraculous!”

Not to mention having the right cast simultaneously contracted, requiring investors stepping up to the plate at the right time, with big money. She also stresses the importance of strong relationships.

“Building relationships is key. You are not going to get a theater unless you have those relationships, and the trust of the theater owners handing over their real estate to you. It’s the whole community,” she said. “I am hard pressed to find any job or any success now not completely based on good relationships.”

Up next: Black Orpheus, the musical

Next up for the dynamic Jones-Harvey and Byrd duo is a new musical version of Black Orpheus slated for Broadway. Many of us are familiar with Marcel Camus 1959 film, but this production will be based on the original play by Vinicius de Moraes which was presented in Rio in 1956.

“It was the first play on stage in Brazil to feature black actors and that in itself was a draw for us, that it has that history,” Jones-Harvey said.  ”It was an impactful piece and it has never been done as a musical here in the States. We are really excited to bring this tragic love story, set in Rio during Carnival, to Broadway.”

While they hope to have the show up in 2014, Jones-Harvey points out that they have only done revivals up to this point. “New musicals are a lot more work; we will nurture it until it’s ready.”

And we will wait, happily, until it makes the perfect addition to Front Row’s stellar track record.

Suzanne Rust is a writer, lifestyle expert, on-air talent, and a native New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter at @SuzanneRust.