Jitney Producer Wants to See Your Contacts
By Annie Schiffmann
Here’s the conundrum:
Without producers of color, playwrights of color have less opportunities to tell their stories. Without their stories being told, there are less opportunities for actors of color to have three dimensional roles. But there aren’t more producers of color partly because they don’t consider it a worthy investment since theater isn’t a vital part of their lives. Why not? Because their stories aren’t being told.
Ron Simons, the Tony Award-winning producer of this season’s Jitney (which in and of itself is nominated for six Tony Awards) and CEO of SimonSays Entertainment, is out to change that. As he told me in a phone call recently, “producers are realizing that there are consumers who are not the 40-60 year old white women who will come to see Broadway.”
First, he has a mission: Tell Every Story. With SimonSays he states, “we want the whole umbrella of stories that [are] underrepresented.” His theater productions span Broadway and Off-Broadway, with a mix of musicals and plays, revivals and new works. Also an actor, out of frustration with the roles he was auditioning for and being offered, he took a hard look at the film and theater industry. “I know that I was not seeing the kind of work reflective of my cultural origins. There were only so many stories being told by and about black people. And you see over the years - like #OscarsSoWhite - many of the Broadway Tony winners were often not people of color. We were often rather absent.” Simons is relentlessly working to change that. In 2015 he produced The Gin Game with James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. In 2016 he produced Hughie starring Forrest Wittaker. And then August Wilson’s Jitney in 2017.
Second, he has a plan: Ask Every Person. Simons understands that to become a producer it requires lots of money up front, or lots of people fronting the money together. "Right now it’s very difficult to get producers of color in the room to be producers. Why? Because they don’t have access. Why don’t they have access? Well there are two thing: either a) they don’t have the high investment amount to get them to the table or b) they don’t have the network of people to invest in a Broadway show at that level of investment.” Simons will ask you if you know anyone to add to his network of investors (he got me thinking of my contacts in an entirely new way). He plans to lobby (when he can find the time) in order to get SEC rules on investments changed which is another way to create more opportunities for would-be investors.
On the other side of the spectrum, his productions are accessible. Theater became a vital part of his life when he saw the original production of Dreamgirls thanks to his discounted TDF tickets. Today, he makes sure all of the productions he works on have a number of different avenues to bring people to the theater that will benefit from seeing their stories onstage: from TDF, to rush tickets, to ticket giveaways on specific radio stations.
Broadway certainly has a diversity conundrum, and thankfully industry leaders like Ron Simons are literally out to change the face of theater in the today's world.