Black Producers Still Rare on Broadway

Finding diversity behind the scenes on the Great White Way is an issue even in the age of Obama.

Stephen Byrd (Getty Images); Alia Jones (Getty Images); Irene Gandy (Getty Images); Tamara Tunie (Getty Images)

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While there have been some notable Broadway successes starring African-American performers since Shuffle Along, including the smash hit Dreamgirls in 1981, the number of African Americans producing and making business decisions on Broadway has not been significant.

The Powerful Few

Gandy is considered one of the most influential African Americans in Broadway history. She is the only African-American press agent to be a member of the influential union ATPAM (Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers). But another testament to her influence on the Great White Way is that she is one of the few nonsuperstar performers to have her caricature hanging on the wall of Broadway power-dining spot Sardi’s, an honor usually reserved for legends such as Lucille Ball and Ethel Merman.

Though she has spent most of her nearly 30-year career as a press agent, securing coverage for some of the most widely honored shows on Broadway — including Tony winners August: Osage County and Spring Awakening — Gandy has worked behind the scenes. Her first producing credit was for the national tour of the African-inspired musical Sarafina! in 1989. It would be more than 20 years before she produced again.

Gandy explained that while the opening of the tour was exciting, with Whoopi Goldberg attending a star-studded kickoff in Los Angeles that would lead to Goldberg starring in the film version, other parts of the tour were traumatizing.

“When we went to Boston, the Charles [Stuart] case had happened, so the cast got death threats.” Gandy was referring to the infamous case of Charles Stuart, who accused black men of carjacking him and his pregnant wife, who died from gunshot wounds. It was eventually uncovered that Stuart was the likely culprit. The case created great racial tension throughout the city.

“The show wasn’t selling,” Gandy said. “The whole cast was getting death threats. Then Stuart confessed, and tickets started selling again.” (According to reports, Stuart did not confess to police but was implicated by family members. He committed suicide shortly after.)

Gandy would not produce again until the 2011 revival of Porgy and Bess, the musical featuring a predominantly black cast including Audra McDonald, one of the most successful actresses in Broadway history. When asked why she agreed to produce Porgy and Bess after forgoing producing for so many years, Gandy said, “I’m really a press agent. I don’t want to be a producer.” But Jeffrey Richards, the powerful Broadway producer whose productions Gandy represents, wanted her involved. “[He] said, ‘I really want a person of color involved in this production,’ ” Gandy recalled.

Gandy said that having powerful people like Richards in the theater business who recognize the importance of diversifying onstage as well as behind the scenes is crucial to ensuring more diversity. But as much as producing is not Gandy’s passion, she also said of having more producers of color, “I think it’s important.” She added, “It does make a difference,” noting that diverse producers help diversify the content we see onstage.