Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey are visionaries and calculated risk takers. The two who are the heart and soul of Front Row Productions currently represent the only Black producers on Broadway. The dynamic duo are a part of what makes Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed such an intoxicatingly poignant theatrical offering. Eclipsed, which opens at the Golden Theatre in New York, is historic due to its entirely female cast and creative team. Amidst the hustle and bustle of preparing for such a highly anticipated show, the pair sat down with Broadway Black Founder, Andrew Shade to discuss their work and how they came to be powerhouse producers.
Stephen Byrd’s thoughtful intellect and iron grasp on how to make things happen is undeniable. He shoots from the hip and holds no punches when commenting about the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy and Chris Rock’s underwhelming attempts at humor while hosting the all-white high five fest. “They feel as if they are vindicated now. Because Chris Rock went up there and made a jerk of himself in my opinion, at our expense.”
It’s a sentiment that turns into a discussion about the viral video clips featuring Jada Pinkett Smith and others. Byrd simply deemed the melee as crass. The Smiths have been Broadway investors but there is a world of difference between being a Hollywood star that lends their name and money to a Broadway project as opposed to actually producing. “When I look at the controversy in Hollywood, I have no real sympathy for them because producing on Broadway is five times as hard as making a movie, because we don’t have the benefactor to call the studio to fund us. We have to find our own funding so a Hollywood producer, all they have to do is take their script to Sony or Fox or Searchlight or wherever and look for funding. We don’t have that resource on Broadway.”
Byrd’s previous background was on Wall Street. He states the partnership between he and Alia Jones-Harvey is one of necessity. “I need her. She’s a good partner.” It is in this moment that Byrd’s rich laughter bursts forward and the essence of the dynamic between the two is revealed. And the previously quiet Jones-Harvey adds, “And I need him.” Her laughter bubbles forth and joins his. It’s at this point where one can see the evident working chemistry between the pair, who have worked together for over ten years.
Byrd recalls his 2008 decision to do an all-Black Broadway revival of Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which blew every other production off the Great White Way and was the highest grossing Broadway play that season. “I looked around the landscape and I needed someone that I could implicitly and explicitly trust and that had the smarts and there stood Alia,” Byrd said, “so I asked her to join me on that adventure.” But of course, when it comes to the accolades one might expect on such a major accomplishment, Black excellence is often ignored in traditionally white spaces. Byrd reflects, “We didn’t get one nomination for anything. We were the biggest grossing play on Broadway and we didn’t get one nomination during the awards season. It was like we didn’t exist. And there were no protests about that.” It was an omission that spoke volumes. Further, Byrd states “We don’t even get recognized by the actors sometimes.”
The recognition that should naturally come with success is often nowhere to be found. While it is often a thankless task thanks to some who fail to acknowledge the importance of the work of Byrd and Jones-Harvey on their projects, they still press forward. They have identified an audience that ‘lives somewhere between Tyler Perry and August Wilson’. Their target is a young and sophisticated crowd that may not always identify with classical plays, instead identifying with the contemporary stars in headlining roles. It’s a strategy that works well for the pair. The two have spent a lot of time and thought crafting a process that produces hit after hit. A combination of the right material, with the right talent and a new and forward-thinking business model that allows investors to invest in a grouping of projects, similar to a mutual fund that reduces the inherent risk incurred on the possibility of a flop while allowing the money to be made back up on a project that becomes a hit. It’s another example of the geniuses at work. Looking forward audiences can expect upcoming productions of Black Orpheus with top Brazilian Black talent and sizzling contemporary music and The Wiz.
But right now, the moment belongs to Eclipsed or as some in the audience may say “The Lupita play”. Jones-Harvey talks about how South African-born Director Liesl Tommy had already been tapped to join the Broadway production so that there could be a fixed directorial presence due to Danai Gurira’s ongoing commitment to her role in “The Walking Dead”. “Danai knew she would be back and forth with “The Walking Dead”…so she wanted someone who would have the shorthand and that was Liesl.” “They’ve already worked on this project, this is their third time around.” “Working with Liesl is a dream. She anticipates. She is an amazing director.” Byrd chimes in, “She goes the extra mile working with her has been nothing less than a blessing. Very detail oriented….we love her.”
According to Byrd, he never looked at the play as being a historical coming together. It was something that just happened. “We knew there would be all women in the cast, but that was about it,” said Jones-Harvey.
“Which was music to my ears,” finishes Byrd with a hearty laugh. And again, there is that spark that belies a comfort and ease of two people who work well together and just seem to click. Byrd and Jones-Harvey have created something special. A fearless approach to seeking out new audiences and a very keen eye for what works, even in the face of erasure and naysayers. It’s a beautiful thing.