In response to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the false accusation by Amy Cooper in Central Park this past May, the Black Lives Matter movement returned to the fore of the national stage. This led the theatre community at large to reconcile with acts of racism on its stages, as well as the diversity, equity, and inclusion (or lack thereof) on Broadway and across the nation. 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 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 the first in 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. First up: Ron Simons.
The Tony Winner Looking for Disruptions
Ron Simons has four Tony Awards as a producer for Jitney, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess—but he’s ready for a neighborhood redesign.
Personally, he wants to see more Black stories led by Black producers. The biggest challenge for Simons is “the generalization from other producers [and investors] that Black content is not commercial, and I mean specifically plays and that they don’t make money or recoup.”
As a lead producer, finding white co-producers and investors can be tricky. Since ticket holders are predominantly white at present, investors often feel skittish about coming on board a non-musical property centering a Black story that may allegedly be slow to sell tickets to the traditional demographic. “I argue that if a story is well-told, I don’t care what the lens it is,” says the producer. The MTC revival production of August Willson’s Jitney is proof of that.
Then there is also the issue of more producers of color across the board—regardless of who a story centers. Simons recalls being the only person of color in decision-making rooms of 45 people for years. “I have gotten calls for me to be on a show because they want a person of color … which is duplicitous,” he says. “It’s great that you reached out to me, that feeling is the right action to diversity, but on the other hand, I feel like you’re responding to potential political fall out.” They should invite people of color earlier in the process, when creative decisions are more in flux and producers have more leeway to contribute, “instead of ‘Hey, we’re opening in three to six to months do you want to come on board?’ because they think we might add value to the communication that they’re putting out into the world.”
Impacting the future: Simons says this won’t be such a problem in the future if the industry supports more Black producers. He spends half of his time serving as a mentor to future talent. (Currently, he mentors five Black women). “If they all become producers, that’s almost doubling the number currently on Broadway.” On top of that, there need to be more white producers willing to take “a risk.”
His strategy: “Suspend the question of commercializing the piece, and look at how moving it is,” says Simons. “I would love to know if I just white-washed a script... how that would impact the idea of how commercial it is; how would that impact someone’s assessment?” Artistic integrity is as crucial as commercial viability. The producer passes on 15-25 shows annually that don’t meet that criteria.
Last season, Simons took on three Off-Broadway and regional productions—he’s especially proud of the recent Dick Gregory bio-musical Turn Me Loose—and he’s a lead producer on three upcoming productions: the anticipated transfer of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Blue, and Thoughts of a Colored Man.
Advice to new producers: Having worked over a decade in the industry, the producer says newcomers need to network as much as possible and “you have to have stick-to-itness,” he says. “Have lots of pieces you’re working on—it’s not a one-trick pony career.”
Now’s the time to get involved, too, he says. When Broadway comes back, Simon estimates the landscape will be completely different with a need to rely heavily on the tri-state area showing up in seats. “People from [the Midwest] aren’t going to want to come after being unemployed for eight months. Even if they’re working, there might not be disposable income.” This predication impacts Simons’ approach to producing: he seeks pledges to invest rather than checks right now. “We have to conserve our resources.”
Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey, Front Row Productions