Updated April 30, 2013
(The Root) — Despite mixed reviews from critics, Motown: The Musical — produced by the record label’s legendary founder, Berry Gordy — is set to become one of Broadway’s biggest successes of 2013. [Editor’s note: It has received Tony Award nominations for sound design and orchestration, as well as nods to actors Valisia LeKae, for leading actress in a musical, and Charl Brown, for featured actor in a musical.] Just a week after premiering, it has already sold out or nearly sold out many of its performances for the coming months. This is significant because instant successes on Broadway are rare, and those with predominantly black casts are even more rare. As for instant successes shepherded by black producers, those are Halley’s Comet rare, in part because today there are so few black Broadway producers, especially at the senior level.
All of them — a handful — know each other and referenced each other during interviews with The Root. When it comes to those producers who are responsible for conceptualizing a project and bringing it to the stage, it may come down to just two.
“We’re probably the only African Americans on Broadway who hands-on produce, choose the project, director, etc.,” said Stephen Byrd, speaking of himself and his producing partner, Alia Jones. Jones has been called the only woman of color currently working as a lead producer on Broadway today. Their company, Front Row Productions, is responsible for such Broadway successes as the 2008 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, featuring an all-star black cast of Terrence Howard, Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones.
Though issues such as civil rights receive far greater attention than cultural diversity within artistic institutions and fields, each of the producers interviewed made a compelling case that diversity behind the scenes in the arts has far-reaching implications for the business world and society at large. Their personal journeys and challenges are a stark reminder that even in the age of the first black president, there remain American professions in which black Americans are virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, there are power structures in place that ensure that certain professions will remain that way unless a conscious choice is made to change things.
Referring to Broadway as an “old boys’ club,” press agent, producer and Broadway legend Irene Gandy, who is black, explained that it is one domain that has been slow to evolve, and that is reflected in issues like diversity. “We forget that Broadway is so traditional.” She then added, “All that’s going to change when the dinosaurs leave the Great White Way.”
A Rich History
Black Broadway producers and productions have existed nearly as long as Broadway itself. 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. It was created by two African-American artists who would secure a prominent place in black history: author and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and composer Will Marion Cook. Featuring dozens of performers of color, the show is credited as the first to significantly break Broadway’s color barrier onstage. But it still required a white producer, Edward Rice, to do so.
It was not until Shuffle Along in 1921 that African Americans on the Broadway stage and behind the scenes experienced a significant breakthrough. Though not the first show to feature black performers or producers, it was the first major Broadway success starring and produced by African Americans. Running for more than 500 performances, it launched the careers of iconic performers Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. Its success also resulted in several more predominantly black musicals opening on Broadway that decade. (As a testament to Shuffle Along‘s far-reaching cultural influence, a song from the show, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” was used as the official song of President Harry Truman during his 1948 campaign.)