“Still An Old Boys’ Network:” Lack of Diversity On Broadway Productions Continues

May 3, 2013  |  

There have been many successful black Broadway productions, including the latest “Motown: The Musical,” produced by the legendary record label’s founder, Berry Gordy. It has numerous received Tony Award nominations.

While it may seem that Broadway has gotten more diverse, behind the scenes it is far from it. Throughout the years there have been many African-American hit TV shows but the number of African Americans producing and making business decisions on Broadway has not been significant, reports The Root.

There of course have been many successful producers of plays that run off-Broadway, such as Vy Higginsen, the first black female writer, producer, director of the longest-running, Off-Broadway musical in the history of American theater with “Mama, I Want to Sing.” The Root, covering this subject, fails to mention her in the piece, but she went on to become the first black woman to produce a drama on Broadway with “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” by August Wilson. And Tyler Perry got his start mounting plays on the so-called “chitlin’ circuit.” He has yet to mount a Broadway production.

“We’re probably the only African Americans on Broadway who hands-on produce, choose the project, director, etc.,” said Stephen Byrd told The Root. Byrd was speaking of himself and his producing partner, Alia Jones. Together thy run a company called Front Row Productions, which is responsible for such Broadway hits as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” featuring an all-star black cast of Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones in the 2008 production of the Tennessee Williams classic.

Though rare, the history of black Broadway producers and productions goes way back. “The first Broadway show created by African Americans and featuring an all-black cast was Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk in 1898,” reports The Root. Author and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and composer Will Marion Cook created it and it featured performers of color. Yet it still required a white producer, Edward Rice, to actually make it to the stage.

The lack of opportunities for blacks behind the Broadway scenes remains a major problem, despite the successes on the stage–even with productions targeted at mainly black audiences. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Motown: The Musical”  “grossed more than $1 million at the box office last week, the third week in a row it has done so. It is rare for an original musical opening cold on Broadway — without a prior, out-of-town engagement or transfer from London’s West End — to see such strength at the box office during the first three weeks of previews before an opening.” The show has mainly targeted black audiences.

Byrd claims it is hard for blacks to break into Broadways’ production ranks. “It’s an old boys’ network,” he said.  “For instance, three family organizations own most of the Broadway theaters. So, ‘if you don’t get a theater, you could end up all dressed up with nowhere to go,’” writes the website.

Jones and Byrd have been working to diversify the world of Broadway producers. For their current Tony-nominated production The Trip to Bountiful, starring Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Williams, behind-the-scenes players include publicist Marvet Britto, music mogul Kevin Liles and New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler and his wife Kimberly, who are lead producers, which means they made a substantial investment in the show’s development and long-term production.

According to Byrd, producers can invest anywhere from $10,000 in a production, though $25,000 and above is usually the standard.

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