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Finally, Broadway is Starting to Represent America

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  • Posted on 22nd Aug, 2022 20:17 PM

“For Colored Girls” producer Ron Simons talks diversity onstage, and why the Great White Way needs a revamp.

This April, in a revelatory rebirth following two years of virtual performances, and after a cultural shakedown in America, Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf” made its triumphant return to Broadway.

The choreopoem, which originally debuted in 1976, is a masterclass in upending traditions, and follows the lives of seven women—shaped by racism and sexism—through poetry and movement.

Despite the challenges of opening on the heels of the Omicron variant surge in New York City, on April 20, the lights dimmed and the curtain was raised at the home of this vibrant new production, the Booth Theater (the same playhouse where it originally debuted). The show was brightly welcomed to the Broadway stage in a season of unprecedented diversity in performances and productions. It felt like the first time that audiences were treated to productions that reflected a truer American identity—and the first time those stories were actually welcomed. Progress, it seemed—following the murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter—was actually taking place at the historically-white theater district often referred to as “The Great White Way.”

A central figure responsible for that progress is Dr. Ron Simons, the most Tony-awarded Black producer in Broadway history. “For Colored Girls” is one of three Broadway shows Simons, 61, produced that season, and just the latest hit in a body of work dedicated to championing Black voices in entertainment.

“My shows often give talent, whatever the talent is, their first shot of working on Broadway,” Simons tells BAZAAR.com. Broadway is a small, insular, community and jobs tend to go to the same people. By bringing two new black women producers on Broadway, I increased the percentage of producers of color by 25%; that’s crazy.”

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In 2020, in the midst of America’s racial reckoning, Simons, along with 400 other theater artists and Black Theater United (of which Simons is a member) came together to create The New Deal for Broadway, a plan that outlines commitments the industry must uphold to ensure equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility. “Just as we are all committed to create safe environments free from discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying, we are committed to create environments that are equitable, diverse, inclusive, accessible and in which everyone has a sense of belonging,” it states.

Funny and deeply passionate, Simons is a producer who pushes the boundaries on what kind of stories can be told on Broadway, on who the stars on those shows can be.

With his company, SimonSays Entertainment, he is building a lasting pipeline to ensure diversity goes beyond one show or one season, and helping creatives from underrepresented communities take their first steps in the theater world—often toward stardom. Take, for example, the multi-talented performer Jeremy Pope, who starred in the Simons-produced “Ain’t No Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” and whose credits now include major roles on television in Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood” and the hit show “Pose.” In October, A24 will release “The Inspection” starring Pope opposite Gabrielle Union.

“Our sound designer—[it was his] first time on Broadway, and he was nominated for a Tony. That's going to get him more jobs. Camille (A. Brown)—this was the first time she was a director on Broadway and now she's fielding offers for her work. It's literally just breaking that glass ceiling and getting diverse populations above that level will help more people,” Simons says.

With the theater industry being predominantly white, it’s no surprise the audiences are too. According to a report released by The Broadway League, non-caucasian individuals represented only 25.6% of audiences during the 2018-2019 season. But Simons believes that’s changing, due, in part, to his and other theater insiders’ moves toward more representation—both on the stage and behind the scenes.

“Black people will come to Broadway to see stories if they feel it includes them in the conversation,” he says. “This is what our audiences look like, because we invited them from the very beginning.”

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During the run of “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” which he produced, Simons recalls standing at the stage lip after shows to admire the crowd. “I would look out into the audience and routinely would see that 75% to 95% of those faces were Black people. That never happened on Broadway. Never, ever,” he says.

Of course, diversity doesn’t end with race. Simons says he sees it as his duty to equally push for inclusion of LGBTQ, disabled, and senior citizen actors. “It is a hands-on job,” he tells BAZAAR of the responsibility that comes with casting a show. “It is very much not the ivory tower with a huge glass office in the corner of the building. It's more like my home office and my computer.”

The road toward total diversity—whatever that may look like—is still long, but Simons is confident Broadway will find its way. In addition to the upcoming production of “Lyrics from Lockdown,” a solo show featuring music and spoken-word-poetry, which Simons is producing, there are several must-see shows coming to the stage this year. This includes a new revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which will undoubtedly be this season’s hot ticket. The seminal play follows the final days of a defeated man who falls into the cracks of the ever-weakening American Dream. The classic family drama has been cast with Black performers in the leading roles—another first for Broadway.

When speaking of the work he’s done and all that’s left to do, Simons’s commanding voice invokes optimism. His words feel like a call-to-action: Everyone is invited, now show me what you can do. SimonSays’ motto is “Tell every story,” and that, in a world begging for relatability, is the responsibility of the theater community moving forward.

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