If you have ever found yourself at a Broadway production in New York City in the past five years, chances are you have experienced a show from Front Row Productions. Beginning with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and continuing with last year’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones have proven themselves as game changers in the theater industry with The Trip To Bountiful.
While shows like Topdog/Underdog (2002), Raisin in the Sun (2004) and The Color Purple (2005-2008) built up the momentum for Broadway of a more diverse audience, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof broke business barriers. The 2008 production stood out in not only hosting a Black cast, but also being the work of Black producers, and with that opening theater jobs to a more diverse workforce. This is a notable rarity considering the history and reach of Black theater and the weight of New York as a theatrical epicenter.
Getting there was a 12-year journey. Byrd had been involved with film projects in the 1990s, but wanted to produce stories that demonstrated the fine quality and genuine marketability of the African-American classical acting cannon. “In Hollywood, you can die of hope,” Byrd explains his intransigent vision that began with getting the rights to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1996.
One year later, he met with James Earl Jones to discuss the actor serving as the revival’s director. However, two hours into the conversation, it was clear to Byrd that Jones was born to play Big Daddy. Following years of hustle and finally meeting his business parter Alia Jones, the production came together with Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and Terrence Howard starring alongside James Earl Jones. The end result explains his motto, “always maintain forward movement.”
American audiences, which included a strong showing of African-Americans, got a thrill from the live exposure to a heavyweight cast, even as Byrd recalls, some theatergoers saw some scenes as “Darth Vader beating up on Mrs. Huxtable.” And while the Tonys failed to recognize the magnitude of production, London proved to host a more astute audience. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the first project from Front Row Productions, took home the prestigious Olivier Award (the UK’s equivalent of the Tony) for best revival.