Recap: Oral History w/ Alia Jones Harvey

The LPTW Oral History Project: Lynn Nottage Interviews Alia Jones-Harvey

By Yvette Heyliger

On Monday, May 24, 2021 League members, as well as the theatre-going public, once again gathered for The Oral History Project, a longstanding program of the League of Professional Theatre Women.  This program, in partnership with the New York Public Library, chronicles and documents the contributions of significant theatre women in all fields, and this second installment of the season did not disappoint.  Olivier Award Winning and 4-time Tony Award-nominated producer Alia Jones-Harvey was interviewed by a former interviewee of The Oral History Project, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage.

The significance of the Jones-Harvey/Nottage interview post-George Floyd/Breonna Taylor, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, and the emergence of We See You White American Theatre and other groups fighting to disrupt racism in the American theatre, was lost on no one.  As Ms. Nottage begins, “You have carved a space for yourself in the industry which has been traditionally white and traditionally male.  And having dipped my toes into the Broadway waters, I can attest to the fact that it can be cold and unwelcoming sometimes to be the only woman of color sitting at the table”.  Indeed.  So, how did Jones-Harvey end up with a seat at the table? 

Suffice it to say, Jones-Harvey’s story at the outset seemed improbable.  She attests to the fact that despite producers who were visiting lecturers to her arts administration classes at business school, she did not envision producing as a career path.  But those of us listening to Jones-Harvey recount her journey, could see the stars were all aligning to make her the only lead black woman producer on Broadway and one half of the only black producing team on Broadway, Front Row Productions. 

Stephen Byrd, a mentor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, asked Jones-Harvey to partner with him to raise money for a revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, re-imagined with an all-black cast.  At that time, Jones-Harvey worked raising money for a hedge fund and it seemed like a transferable skill, so she said yes.  She saw Byrd’s proposition as, “an opportunity to start a business and raise the money for what I thought was a great idea”.  The new producing team attracted the interest of Nina Lannan, the then-chair of the Broadway League.  This subsequently led to an introduction to Gerald Schoenfeld of The Shubert Organization who took Jones-Harvey under his wing, inviting her to sit in on his class at Columbia University. 

It was on-the-job training for Jones-Harvey whose partnership with Byrd and his grand vision for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, led to the highest-grossing play of the season.  Who would have thought that Byrd’s decision to take on this white classic would be the best decision for their debut on Broadway as producers?  Jones-Harvey explained that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a well-known play with a proven track record and brand recognition which provided a much-needed safety net for Front Row as new producers.  And the rest, as they say, is history—a history which included the production of Eclipsed, their first production with a living playwright, which Nottage noted was historic “with five black women on the stage, in a play written by a black woman, and produced by a black woman”.

But it has not exactly been a “Cinderella” story for Jones-Harvey who readily admits that when it comes to the need to have more inclusivity on the Great White Way, “Front Row has been on this crusade the entire time that we have been on Broadway…  Our eyes were opened once we started developing [Cat on a Hot Tin Roof].  All of the management was white; all of the advertisers, all of the accounting team and legal team… Once tech rehearsals started and we moved into the theatre, all of the stage hands were white”.  Front Row recognized that there was an opportunity to try to affect the kind of change that was within their limited control as new producers. They insisted on a black stage manager, production assistants and interns of color in the general management office and at the advertising agency.  It was not until A Street Car Named Desire that they started “to see the faces around the table take on more color”. 

Jones-Harvey goes on to say that by the time they did Eclipsed, “we were in a much stronger position to identify early on where we could actually affect the diversity on the management team, on the design team, on the creative team and in the theatre… Today, this is what we are sharing with other producers... ways that they can start to do the same thing.  As the producer, the buck does stop with you and you do have the agency to say, ‘There are no account managers of color in your agency.  That’s a problem.  You are not going to win this contract otherwise’”. 

Ultimately, it is about getting more producers of color working in the commercial theatre.  "The producers are going to decide what comes onto Broadway and what gets seen. If we had two or three more producers of color on Broadway, it would be significantly different."  To this end, Front Row has partnered with Columbia University to announce The Front Row Productions Fellowship.  This fellowship is designed for producers of color with an entrepreneurial spirit and the and grit necessary to take the helm of a startup company; with a project in hand, ready for development that could benefit from the commercial theatre connections the fellowship provides.  Applications are available now. For more information contact: 

Yvette Heyliger is a playwright, producing artist, activist, co-chair of LPTW’s Rachel Crothers Leadership Award and longtime LPTW member. 




If you enjoyed the Alia Jones-Harvey Oral History Project interview with Lynn Nottage consider watching past interviews with Billie Allen, Tyne Daly, Carmen De Lavallade, Judith Light, Laura Linney, Bebe Neuwirth, Lynn Nottage and Lois Smith.

Thank you to everyone who completed the Oral History interviewee survey. Magnificent suggestions were made. We have several years worth of wonderful interviews ahead of us.  If you missed the opportunity to submit and have an idea for a potential future interviewee, please feel free to complete the survey here.  Please note that if someone you have suggested has been honored by the League in the past 5 years we will need to wait until that period has passed. 
Share this post:

Comments on "Recap: Oral History w/ Alia Jones Harvey"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment