The world has changed a lot since Broadway shuttered its doors in March, and now questions remain as to how they’ll be addressing systemic racism within the industry once performances resume for the public. Since uprisings around the country took off in the spring, the theater world has been grappling with an open letter that was published by BIPOC theater artists that was addressed to “white American theater,” calling out the industry for its role in institutionalized racism.
But regardless of how Broadway and the broader theater world decide to address the demands listed in the letter, there are some people of color in the industry who have made it their mission to bring more representation in theater, both on-stage and off. One of those people is Ron Simons, an actor and four-time Tony Award-winning producer. Simons is the first Black producer to lead three Black shows to Broadway, and produced the first two Broadway shows to feature Black producers, a Black writer, a Black director, and a Black cast—and he isn’t done yet.
Simons, who says his first two auditions for television were for a pimp and a drug dealer, has spent much of his career working to remind the public that there are other stories to be told about the Black community. Simons has four more shows he’s hoping to bring to Broadway once productions are permitted to resume. He sat down with me for an interview about being one of the few Black producers on Broadway, the open letter that was published in June, and what he’d like to see theaters do in order to diversify their casts and audiences. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Carolyn Copeland: Recently, a lot of companies and organizations have been reflecting on how they operate and whether they have an acceptable level of diversity in their productions and on their staff. Why do you think diversity in theater is important?
Ron Simons: Diversity in theater and diversity in storytelling overall is important if we hope to understand one another and go beyond the racial intolerances that plague our country. Racism and all the isms are born out of hatred and ignorance. Theater has a capacity to open both your heart and your mind to things that you might not have considered possible. So without diversity in theater and diversity in storytelling, we’re resigning ourselves to allow much of our population to just dwell in the hatred and ignorance that fuels their racism.
For me, I’m trying to change the world one project at a time. And while we have more representation on stage than off, [for] Broadway, we still are not in an equitable position in terms of proportionally representing the culture that we live in by the people on the stage; offstage, it’s far worse. Nevermind the fact that there are only six Black Broadway producers. Let’s set that aside for a moment and talk about the history of the theater and Broadway as it relates to Black storytelling. From my research, I think there were five Broadway shows in the 400 plus-year history of Broadway that had a production featuring a Black writer, director, and producer. So when I get calls from my white friends and colleagues checking in on me [and asking] how I’m doing after the George Floyd murder [and we start] having these group calls on Zoom about the state of the union and racism, I want to go, “Well, let’s talk about the diversity in shows that you’ve presented.” We the producers are the gatekeepers. We’re the ones who find the projects, we develop the projects, [and] we raise money for the projects.
I have three Broadway shows this year that feature a Black writer, producer, director, and a Black cast. That alone will almost double the number of projects that have existed, with those three roles as Black people in the history of Broadway. We can find it in ourselves to find, to fund, and to invest in diverse storytelling as a real commitment and option that can be taken in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Copeland: I know you put your heart into the projects that you do and that you’re a part of, but as a Black producer, do you feel that there’s any pressure to have a Black cast, writer, and director because if you don’t, no one else will?
Simons: Not only do I think it’s my responsibility, I see it as a moral imperative. The mission of my company SimonSays Entertainment is to tell every story. My company is about diversifying storytelling and the people who are telling the stories. There are some shows that I’ve been involved in where I’ve been the only Black person in the room. I was the only person who was Black on the producing team, the marketing team, the advertising team, the PR team, the social media team—everybody in the room was white except for me, which was kind of shocking for the first couple times [but] then it became standard. Only now are things starting to change. In general, I feel that it should be a commitment by everyone in this industry to promote stories that are told by and about people of color.
Copeland: A lot of theaters have expressed their desire to diversify. Where do you think they should start?
Simons: Find content that is about diverse populations. I would suggest that Broadway producers, when they go out looking for content, that they make it a requirement that a number of the shows that they are bringing are about people of color. And if you don’t have some project right now that you are spearheading, then get on board one of the other projects that are already in development.
Copeland: In June, there was an open letter addressed to “white American theater.” It had a list of demands by theater workers with the goal of bringing more diversity and inclusivity to Broadway. What did you think about that?
Simons: Well, I supported the intent of the letter entirely. I felt like it could have gone further with specifics of action items that we in the industry could do to facilitate change. It had the meat, but I felt like there were some generalities that were spoken of. I felt like there could have been more skeleton around it, like “Here are the action items that we want the people in this interview to take. We want producers to do A,B, and C. We want directors to do one, two, and three. We want theater owners to do X,Y, and Z.”
We want action, because talking isn’t doing it. Talking is great [and] can be an introduction to change, but change happens when you do something.
Copeland: Do you think people who work in theaters on Broadway are taking the letter seriously and might actually implement some new policies?
Simons: To Broadway’s credit, there are rumblings of a few institutions who are taking that [letter] to heart. Theater owners are looking for Black content. I think that investors [who were] slow to invest in Black content now see the significance of investing in Black content. I think there’s a fire that was lit under them about their participation in the status quo.
Some of the issues raised were problems that happen politically that are very difficult to address because they happen behind closed doors or they’re microaggressions [and] you can’t look them in the face and say, “This is exactly what you did and that’s why this harmed me as a Black storyteller.” But there are a few institutions that I’ve been in conversation with who do want to see change and participate. I just need more of them. I want to believe that artists and people who tell stories will do the right thing and see their moral obligation to include more diversity on and off the stage, but only time will tell.
Copeland: I am based in the San Francisco Bay Area and there was a similar letter with testimonials and list of demands that was sent to local theaters. One of the demands was that every theater respond in order to acknowledge the fact that this letter went out. I was actually chatting with somebody recently from a theater in the Bay Area who told me that their board members don’t want to respond because the letter was anonymous. I know you’re on Broadway, so you’re not involved in San Francisco theater, but do you have a message or any advice to theaters who are hesitant to respond for that reason?
Simons: Well, to be honest, that’s not the only reason why people don’t want to respond. I’ve talked to my white friends and colleagues who are producers and they felt that the tone of the letter was mean-spirited. I believe that it was just people telling their stories, their facts, their experiences. But I do know that some people discounted [the letter] because it sounded too mean, and other people discounted it because they [thought], “Oh, that’s not me. That’s those people over there. I’m good because I did a Black play two years ago.”
So I love this idea of everyone acknowledging that the damn thing came out and that it happened and we received it and we’re taking it under advisement.
Copeland: I want to shift gears a little bit and talk to you about colorblind casting. How do you feel about it in general?
Simons: I’m not a huge fan of colorblind casting. But I’m not that person who says, “Oh, there is no color. There is no Black, there is no white. We are all human beings.” I think that undercuts the very essence of who we are as a culture, and certainly as African Americans. And I think if you’re going to cast a show with, for example, people of color in roles that were not conceived to be people of color, then you should not just put the Black body up there. You should put the Black experience and the Black culture up there [and] bring the whole kit and caboodle to that story.
Copeland: Broadway tickets can be expensive, which could be why theater audiences in general typically tend to be white and older. Do you think more diversity in casting would be enough to draw more people of color into the audience?
Simons: I think that it will be a heavy price to pay down the line if storytelling becomes whitewashed and there isn’t a considered effort to diversify the stories, particularly from people on stage, but also in many ways the people off stage.
I can tell you for a fact that when Black audience members or [Black] prospective buyers see a show with Black people in it, they are far more likely to attend than production than [if it] had been a white cast. We want to see ourselves on paper. We want to see ourselves on film. We want to see ourselves in front of us. We want it to be acknowledged that we exist. And when we, as Broadway, deny that diversity, then we’re saying to people of diverse backgrounds that they don’t really exist and we don’t have to really pay attention to [them] … So it’s not because [people of color] don’t have the resources to buy a ticket. It’s because they don’t feel invited to the party.
Copeland: What else do you think needs to be done specifically to improve representation offstage?
Simons: There’s one thing I’m a big proponent of. The vast majority of investors who invest through producers in Broadway shows are white.Rarely are there African American investors in shows. And we as an industry have not made inroads into the potential investment opportunities in the African American community [or] the Latin community that we could. And I know that because I’ve gone out and I’ve talked to [investors of color] and most of them didn’t even know that they could invest in Broadway. They had no idea that it was possible. They didn’t understand how that model works at all. Why? Because no one’s ever invited them. I’m like, “Come to this party. I need you at this party.”
If you don’t invite those investors and the investors eventually become producers, well then you shouldn’t be surprised when there aren’t more Black producers—because they weren’t groomed through investment to become a producer. The reason I’m doing this interview with you is because I need young people, young Black boys and girls to know that this is a career that you can aspire to. [I want them to say,] “There is a Black man who looks like me who won four Tony Awards and he is producing shows on Broadway every season.” That’s important to me.