‘Eclipsed’ Production Duo On Breaking Through Broadway’s Glass Ceiling

Producers Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey share their thoughts on making history with “Eclipsed.”

“No white producer would’ve brought ‘Eclipsed’ to Broadway unless Lupita went to them and said ‘Please, let’s go with it,’” said producer Stephen Byrd.

During a season where Broadway is grossinga record high of $1.37 billion, lead producers Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey of Front Row Productions are making history of their own with “Eclipsed.”

Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Pascale Armand, Akosua Busia, Zainab Jah and Saycon Sengblo, “Eclipsed” — which is the first play written by, directed by, produced by and starring black women — tells the intense story of five women who are brought together by turmoil in their homeland of Liberia.

In addition to receiving six Tony Award nominations, the pair are very passionate about bringing new voices to Broadway, including introducing director Liesl Tommy.

“I think, for us, it’s always exciting to break ground,”Jones-Harvey told HuffPost. “Every production that we’ve done has broken ground on Broadway in some form or fashion. And for this production to have shattered this glass ceiling is exciting for us. We’ve debut two of the three black female directors on Broadway. We debuted Debbie Allen in her directorial debut in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and now Liesl Tommy, who was primed to be on Broadway as she’s a prolific director and not to be overlooked in a season that has really demonstrated her ability to bring out these characters and their voices.”

Producers Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey of Front Row Productions.

Though the pair also has produced such successful shows as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “The Trip To Bountiful,” Byrd and Jones-Harvey’s sixth production marks a milestone for them as they join a small club of black Tony nominated producers Ken Harper (“The Wiz”), and Camille Cosby (“Having Our Say”).

“Eclipsed” comes along at a time when Broadway is seeing several shows with diverse casts experience success and get some shine, including “Hamilton,” “The Color Purple,” “On Your Feet!,” and “Shuffle Along.” While the shows have offered more diversity on the Great White Way than previous seasons, some have arguedthat Broadway’s racial diversity makeup is comparable to Hollywood’s dismal statistics.

According to an August 2015 article published by the Guardian, less than 25 percent of plays produced in America during the 2014-2015 season were by women, while during the last three years, only 12 percent were written by people of color.

In my humble opinion, no white producer would’ve brought ‘Eclipsed’ to Broadway unless Lupita went to them and said ‘Please, let’s go with it.”Stephen Byrd

For Byrd, the conversation hasn’t really improved much since the launch of Front Row Productions in 2006.

“I don’t know if it’s really changed a lot at the level that we are,” he said. “You get your normal directors and you get your musicals, and you get a breakthrough like we’re coming through. But if you look at the producers of ‘The Color Purple’ or ‘Shuffle Along’ — or a number of the plays that are out there that are produced by African-Americans — it’s only gotten better since we’ve [Front Row] been here because we’ll bring those subjects to the stage that others will not touch. And Broadway is the final landing pad where you wanna be. There’s a lot happening off-off Broadway and off-Broadway, notwithstanding the Dick Gregory play [‘Turn Me Loose’], but landing on Broadway is not easy. And so I haven’t seen it changed at the level of producers. And we’ve been the ones who introduced the women of color and the writers of color to Broadway.”

In Spring 2008, the production team’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” became the highest grossing play on Broadway, which later transferred to London’s West End during the 2009-2010 season, where the duo attracted record audiences and received the 2010 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Byrd encourages producers of color to take more risks in order to make changes on Broadway.

“No one else is going to take a chance. In my humble opinion, no white producer would’ve brought ‘Eclipsed’ to Broadway unless Lupita went to them and said ‘Please, let’s go with it,’” he said. “We were fortunate enough that Lupita’s people brought it to us and we, in turn, took it to the Public Theater, who embraced it and gave us a home to nurture it and incubate it.”

The cast of ‘Eclipsed’ producer Stephen C. Byrd, Pascale Armand, Zainab Jah, Lupita Lyong’o, Saycon Sengbloh, Akuosa Busia, and producer Alia Jones-Harvey attend the 82nd Annual Drama League Awards Ceremony.

To further extend their outreach to the community, Byrd and Jones-Harvey have also launched the “10,000 Girls Campaign” to bring 10,000 girls to see “Eclipsed,” along with a dedication campaign — spearheaded by playwright Danai Gurira — to call attention to the still-missing 219 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram. To date, U2’s Bono and singer-actress Jill Scott have shared personal dedications during the show’s curtain call.

Byrd and Jones-Harvey say the initiatives will carry over into their future productions, including 2017’s “The Wiz” and “Black Orpheus” the musical.

“We have a social agenda in what we do that surrounds whatever kind of production we do,” Byrd adds. “Beyond the traditional donating to whatever funds after the show, we take it to another lever and sort of redirect it to something that focuses on something meaningful to us personally.”

“Eclipsed” is now playing at the Golden Theatre on Broadway through June 19.

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