BY MARK WHITAKER
Just weeks into a two-month run, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of August Wilson’s “Jitney” is getting rave reviews as a triumph of ensemble theater. The play about the camaraderie and conflicts between gypsy cab drivers in Pittsburgh is also winning attention as the last of Wilson’s “Century Cycle” — his 10 plays depicting life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District over 10 decades — to make it to Broadway, following the memorable runs of such hits as “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson.”
Yet ironically, “Jitney” was the first play that Wilson wrote about the Hill District, in the late 1970s when he was still a struggling poet and only beginning to try his hand at writing for the stage. Like the play itself, the tale of how “Jitney” finally made it to Broadway is an ensemble story. One of its most interesting characters is Ron Simons, 56, a black New York-based theater and film producer who less than two decades ago was working as a computer executive for Microsoft in Seattle.
The son of a Detroit autoworker, Simons grew up with visions of becoming either a software engineer or an actor. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, he double majored in programming and English, with a focus on theater. He applied to the Yale Drama School, but by the time he heard back he had taken a job at Hewlett-Packard. Only 19 years later, after stints at IBM and Microsoft, did he summon the courage to pursue his other dream and enroll in acting school at the University of Washington.
Simons moved to New York City in 2001 to try to make it as an actor, but the transition wasn’t easy. It took him two years to land a minor role on “Law and Order,” that rite of passage for so many New York actors. While his agent kept calling with uninspiring offers of bit parts in TV and commercials, Simons was meeting black and other minority writers with exciting projects that they couldn’t get off the ground. So in 2009, he decided to do something about it by becoming a producer.
Simons caught an early break with an independent film called “Night Catches Us.” The script about a Black Panther who returns home for his father’s funeral had been kicking around for a decade when Simons invested enough money to get a credit, mostly so he could shadow the executive producer. Then that producer and the director fell out, and Simons had to step in. He got lucky again when the lead actress pulled out and Kerry Washington was available — two years before she shot to stardom in “Scandal.” While not a box office success, ”Night Catches Us” impressed critics at the Sundance Film Festival and gave Simons a crash course in being a film’s “CEO,” as he calls it.
Turning to theater, Simons identified three qualities he would look for in scripts: artistic merit, commercial appeal and a connection to “underrepresented communities.” Those criteria led him to join production teams for “The Gin Game” starring James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson; “Hughie,” starring Forrest Whitaker; and “Turn Me Loose,” about the comedian and activist Dick Gregory. Explaining how much of producing involves lining up recognizable names to give a project “pedigree,” Simons recalls that the Gregory project “couldn’t get arrested” until Joe Morton (the father in “Scandal”) agreed to star and singer John Legend came aboard as the marquee producer.
Simons admits that he’s “made of bunch of mistakes” in becoming a producer, but he’s learned a few core lessons. “Networking is the absolute key” to finding great scripts and recruiting investors, he says. Almost all productions are “hurry up and wait” affairs, requiring years of patience and then the ability to act in a matter of days and even hours once the pieces come together. Most of all, Simons says, “You have to go on faith that if you bring together the right people, magic will happen.”
A partner on “Turn Me Loose,” Broadway producer Eric Falkenstein, led Simons to “Jitney.” The Manhattan Theatre Club had committed to making the play part of its 2017 calendar — guaranteeing healthy ticket sales from the MTC’s “installed base” of subscribers. Falkenstein, Simons and Legend put up hundreds of thousands more in “enhancement” dollars to insure production values and marketing worthy of the superb cast. The result, Simons boasts, is a theater experience of “nines across the board.”
Through his production company, SimonSays, Simons is now part of a small but increasingly visible world of black actors using their clout and connections to get passion projects made, creating opportunities for diverse actors and other creative talent in the process. Although tight-lipped about details, Simons lists among the company’s upcoming projects a screenplay by Joe Morton; a musical about “a well-known singing group;” and a TV interview series with singers modeled on “Inside the Actors Studio.” Meanwhile, he continues to audition for acting roles and to make small investments with his own money in likely hits such as the revival of “Hello Dolly” with Bette Midler.
Simons says he is also looking forward to the Oscars, and the chance to cheer on best picture and acting nominations for three films — “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures” — that would never been made without the influence of that world of black movers and shakers. “It’s happy confluence,” he says about the end of the #OscarsSoWhite drought, “but there is no guarantee that things have changed permanently.” A decade and a half into his second career as black man in show business, the engineer in Ron Simons knows that it’s still up to him to make things happen.