Producing for Passion and Profit
African American producers aren’t just taking on black shows. Tamara Tunie, best known from the NBC series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has deep connections to the Broadway stage as a performer in shows, including the revival of Julius Caesar starring Denzel Washington. Tunie was also one of the Tony Award-winning producers of the Broadway musical Spring Awakening and an investor in Legally Blonde, The Musical. She also produced August Wilson’s Radio Golf, the final work in the playwright’s epic 10-play cycle chronicling 20th-century African American life.
When Tunie signed on as a producer for the 2007 Broadway production of Radio Golf, she committed to raising a considerable portion of its $2.1 million budget. She enlisted the help of Wendell Pierce (HBO’s The Wire), making him the second African American on the producing team. Pierce had co-produced Wilson’s Jitney off-Broadway. After an 11-week run Radio Golf grossed $1.8 million.
“For Radio Golf my goal was to get more black folks into the theater, and I did that,” says Tunie. “For me, it’s not just about the money.”
First-time producers Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones broke all the rules with their 2008 star-studded production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Their initial budget was $3 million, but they came in under budget, at $2.1 million. Byrd and Jones targeted high net worth individuals who were willing to take risks. It took 13 years to bring the show to the stage because of delays in acquiring the cast, a director, and a theater.
The audience makeup was 60% black, 40% white, says Byrd. In the end, Cat grossed $12.6 million after its limited run, among only five shows to recoup their investment during the 2007–2008 season. The duo repeated their success in 2009 when they took the all-black production to London’s West End theater district. “Normally shows are imported to Broadway from London,” says Byrd. The move paid off. Cat brought home the Olivier Award for Best Revival.