Amidst the awards for outstanding theatre artists, the monologue contests and panel discussions, the recent Black Theater Network conference held here in Detroit highlighted one of Broadway theater’s great ironies.
The number of Black producers on the Great White Way is exceeded by the number of black-themed shows being produced there. Last fall a record seven African-American themed shows were up on Broadway.
One of the six Black Broadway producers is four-time Tony award winner Ron Simons, a high-tech programmer and businessman who, in mid-career, migrated into acting and producing.
Simons’ success story includes producing Tony award winners Porgy and Bess, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike as well as Jitney. His recent Thoughts of a Colored Man was the first Black produced and directed show with an all Black cast ever on Broadway. His latest show was a revival of the 1976 Tony-nominated for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf.
How did Simons set the record for Tony wins by a black producer? The answer is as complicated as it is fascinating.
After growing up in Detroit, he got a bachelor’s in Computer Science and Theater and then an MBA at Columbia. He then went to work at Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, IBM and Texas Instruments to support his family, including his mother and grandparents. Determined to realize his childhood dream of becoming an actor, he sought an MFA at the University of Washington.
Finally, at age 39, Simons decided to realize the dream nurtured as a kid at Detroit shows and began commuting to New York to pursue an acting career. After producing a series of feature films, he became Broadway’s second black producer in 2010.
When I began working on new shows I was always the only person of color in a room full of white producers.
One of his most profound experiences took place at a crowded Broadway Theater League meeting he later described in an Inside Hook interview:
“When we had a break, I went outside and I was pouring myself some coffee. I talked to this guy, I said, ‘Do you notice anything about that room that’s interesting?’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, when you look around the room, did anything strike you?’ He was like, ‘No, not really. Why do you ask?’ I said, ‘Because I noticed that there were literally two people out of 200 people in that room who were people of color.’ And this light went off in his head. He said, ‘Really?’”
After his first stint as a producer on Tony winning Porgy and Bess, Simons was quick to credit his hometown.
I think Detroit gave me the earliest seeds of the tenacity you need to flourish in theater.
No matter how smart and gifted and talented you are, you have to work twice as hard to break out as a Black man on Broadway.
Key influences from his youth were the work of Langston Hughes and Motown artists who “taught me how to tell a story from a musical point of view. Detroit showed me what’s possible.”
“Martin Luther King was a key role model. Just listening to him speak so eloquently for hours showed me what a black leader could achieve.”
As Simons’ reputation grew, his phone number began landing on the speed dial of fellow producers.
“When I was called about joining the production team for Ain’t Too Proud, a musical about the Temptations, the song book of my childhood, I was in. When they asked me to recommend someone to write the book, I nominated Detroit’s Dominique Morriseau, someone who understands our city and has a passion for our story.”
The success of that musical, which is drawing big audiences on a national tour that could last for years, is a central part of the Ron Simons story. Unlike many producers who are neither actors nor dramaturgs, he combines business and creative experience on stage.
A passionately hands-on producer with just one employee at his company, Simon Says Entertainment, 61-year-old Simons works hard to mentor the next generation of African American potential on Broadway.
The biggest problem is that a lot of creative people have no idea what a theatrical producer actually does.
While there are plenty of outstanding regional African American theaters — Detroit’s Plowshares (see Hastings Street), Flint’s Charles McKee Theater and Penumbra in Minneapolis — becoming a black theater producer on Broadway is a big financial leap.
“You need to spend $250,000 just to do the paperwork before you can begin raising money for a Broadway show. If you don’t have a lot of rich friends, getting started can require considerable creativity. A musical can cost $10 million to $15 million.”
On his way to deliver a commencement address at the University of Washington in June, Simons suggested that his identity gives him the street smarts to understand diverse audiences.
As a queer Black man, I should — statistically speaking — be dead or behind bars.
“Right now I am getting calls from theater owners asking me what I have. At the moment, I am working on bringing Lyrics From Lockdown, the multimedia hip hop , R&B, calypso, classical music, poetry and spoken-word show by Bryonn Bain from Los Angeles to New York. I’ve also got a show on comedian Dick Gregory in development.”
My greatest thrill as an artist is being in a position to greenlight the work of amazing talent.
Simons is intrigued by playwright Dominque Morriseau’s decision to purchase a house near the Motown Museum and open it to theater creators who need free office space while visiting her hometown.
“Detroit is a terrific place to launch a new show. I’m interested in creating a related place that will help nurture producers who want to launch their careers here. There’s never been a better time to be a black producer and there’s never been a better time to be in Detroit. It’s a hotbed of activity with fertile soil.”
Ain’t Too Proud, which Ron Simons co-produced with a book by Dominique Morissesu, runs at Detroit Opera through August 28.
Roger Rapoport (rogerrapoport.com) is the producer/co-screenwriter of award- winning film Coming Up For Air featured September 30 at a special Cinetopia event in Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater. His new play Old Heart, which premiered in Detroit this spring, begins touring this fall.