116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Broadway producer Ron Simons applauds the work Corridor theaters have been doing to give voice to underrepresented communities, even before pledging solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Theatre Cedar Rapids, Revival and Mirrorbox theaters in Cedar Rapids, Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, City Circle Theatre in Coralville, Giving Tree Theater in Marion and others have a history of probing themes from racial, religious and political discrimination to LGBTQ, bullying and age-related issues.
That mirrors the mission of Simons’ New York-based SimonSays Entertainment, which strives to “tell every story.” He’s Broadway’s most Tony Award-winning Black producer, capturing coveted best show honors for “Jitney” in 2017, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” in 2014, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in 2013, and “Porgy and Bess” in 2012.
He’s leading what’s been deemed “a historic effort” to bring Black history, culture and experience to Broadway.
As a producer, he spearheaded a social media campaign this spring to keep onstage the 2022 revival of the 1976 iconic work, “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.”
Broadway News credits the show’s seven Tony nominations and the social media campaign with keeping the show onstage through June 5. Originally slated to run April 20 to Aug. 14, the run was shortened to May 22, before being extended two more weeks.
He sees his role as a Black producer instrumental in hiring other Black leaders behind the scenes, a crucial element for bringing the Black experience to the stage.
“I look for stories that have the authentic voice that is the center of the story,” said Simons, 61, a Detroit native now living in New York City. “So it’s very important for me to find people who are as close to that community as possible.”
With “for colored girls,” he fulfilled his commitment to finding women of color for all the leadership roles — from choreographer to hair designer — except for male sound and projection designers.
“The reason why that’s important, is because if you don’t have representations about the community about which the story is being told, you run the risk of not being able to tell the story in an authentic way,” he said. “ … You want someone from that community who has heard or perhaps even firsthand knows what that woman is going through, or can relate to what she’s going through, and understands where that woman comes from … what might trigger her, what are her dreams? And a lot of that, hopefully, is written by the playwright in the play.
“But through the voice of the director and the actor, it needs to come to fruition to be its most authentic voice. That is absolutely important to make that happen,” he said.
“They say that a white director, a white writer, cannot write a Black story. Of course they can write a Black story. No problem. I have a play coming up where the writer is a white woman and the director is a white man, but the story is about an African American civil rights leader, but that civil rights leader was alive and wanted those people involved to tell the story.
“So that means you surround them with people of color who can guide them about the voices they’re speaking through. … You need the diversity from that community if you hope to have any kind of authenticity, because it can make the difference between it being a really good play and a phenomenal play. You don’t have to have everyone, but you better have those voices represented somewhere on the production team,” he said.
Despite the melting pot that is New York City, finding that representation on Broadway has been a challenge, Simons noted.
“Like any number of institutions around the country, it's a homogeneous group of people who are the final gatekeepers. … All of the people who own all of the theaters on Broadway are primarily white men and a white woman. Not a single theater in New York City is owned by a person of color.
“And those are the people who determined if a piece is worthy of being on Broadway, and are deciding which plays get to come on Broadway. There was the sentiment that once you have your one Black play on Broadway, then you’re good,” Simons said. “And so that’s problematic.”
He’s heartened, however, by what’s been happening lately, calling the most recent season “mind-blowing and so uplifting.”
“To have every new play on Broadway written by a person of color — that is a seismic shift in the way business is done on Broadway. Everyone was rushing to show that they do care about diversity, that they are actually programming stories about people of color on Broadway.”
Simons hopes that trend continues, “because at the end of the day, it’s not about a particular season. It is about the industry, and year in, year out committed to telling stories about underrepresented communities. That’s where substantive change happens.”
He said the proof of that commitment will come five or 10 years from now, “looking back at where we were before COVID and where we were after Black Lives Matter,” to see how the industry “is showing its commitment to people of color by the work that’s being represented onstage.”
It’s not a new concept, Simons added.
“It has been discussed for a number of years, but it needed a catalyst. It needed the perfect storm, and in this case, it was the murder of George Floyd — how people woke up and realized that Black men have been killed on the regular for centuries,” he said.
“We needed to have COVID so that people were, honestly, just less busy and had more time on their hands to pay attention and to respond (to) what I’ve seen my whole life.”
He was “literally blown away” by seeing “so many white people take to the streets and protest of violence against men and women of color by the police.”
Institutions followed, including Corridor theaters, issuing support statements and pledging to bring the stories of underrepresented communities to the stage.
But, he pointed out that change “is often a very slow process … with institutions saying, ‘We can’t find qualified Black people — the people are just not out there.’ And so we have to build the pipeline, and I have nothing against building the pipeline. That is absolutely, completely important, and the right thing to do.
“But we can’t wait for the pipeline to start yielding the results five, 10 years down the line,” he said. “If we want change, we have to do it today, right now, and that’s what theater did.”
Simons said “Hamilton” has contributed to the change, because it “showed the world” that you could have people of color “at the center of the story, and it could be a shining star of excellence.”
“And therefore you can talk about that because of ‘Hamilton.’ Now we can talk about representatives of people in history not necessarily being European. What’s important is the talent that’s behind it,” he said, from the writing to the final product. “(Hamilton) was a situation where everybody got it right, and it just so happened to be a story where people of color were at the helm.”
Simons adheres to three key ingredients in staging plays about underrepresented communities: a good story, commercial viability and high artistic production.
In Middle America
Corridor theaters, with predominantly white leadership and acting pools, have been nurturing relationships at home and beyond Eastern Iowa borders to fill key roles onstage and behind the scenes with people of color.
Many have practiced “colorblind” casting, using non-white actors in traditionally white roles, or stepping across gender barriers, as in the case of Riverside Theatre’s summer outdoor production of “Henry V,” where Katy Hahn portrayed the king.
In June, Revival Theatre Company staged “The Color Purple,” featuring an all-Black cast. About half the actors were local, including the three lead females, and the other half came from various parts of the country, found through national casting notices.
Led by the company’s white founders, artistic director Brian Glick and music director Cameron Sullenberger, the show played to sold-out crowds, with cheers and standing ovations throughout the run at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids. Sullenberger drew on his experience directing music and playing piano at a Black church in south Dallas, and the company hired a Black choreographer and Black lighting designer, both from out of town, to help guide the show.
Simons said nurturing those connections from near and far is key to bringing actors, writers, creatives and leaders from underrepresented communities to local stages.
“They need to invite them in and give them the same level of support that they would give any other non-artists of color, to do the work that they’re going to do,” he said. “Because what happens now at regional theaters — and I get why it happens — is that they will do one Black play a season.
“But it’s my humble opinion, if you really want to be more inclusive … if you can make it more than about the same demographics of the city in which you live … it challenges the people in your audiences to look at the world a little differently, because people are not going to grow when they see themselves on stage at the local theater all the time.
“Change happens when you are invited into the living room of a culture that you know very little about — you don’t eat their food, you don’t listen to their music, you don’t dress like they do, you don’t live in the same kind of houses they live in.
“Presenting those stories invites you to open your mind and experience it in such a way that when you leave the theater, you’re thinking about something slightly different,” but finding the commonality in “a universal theme, whether it’s a coming of age story, or a revenge, or a story of betrayal, or a sort of love or whatever those universal themes are. Because I can look specifically through the lens of a particular subculture, (which) allows me to access that and draw comparisons to my life as (for example) a white straight man. And it also has the side effect of possibly chipping away at the ignorance that creates hate.”
The same holds true for reaching out to younger audiences, to help cultivate the organization’s future.
“You have to be brave,” he said. “I know that a lot of theaters are really nervous about their subscribers,” but as they age out, “you need to find new theatergoers, and you need to be able to program stories for those theatergoers, and you have to actively go out and invite them, to know that they are welcome, to know that their stories matter, and that their stories are being represented on your stage. Then you have a chance to diversify your audience in terms of the age demographics, which is what everyone wants.
“Everyone wants to get the younger consumer in the door,” he said, “because that’s the future.”
Comments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com