I remember waking to the news on July 22, 2013, that my friend, associate, and the man responsible for my Broadway career, Mr. Ashton Springer, had died.
Let me tell you about … Ashton Springer.
Ashton Springer was one of Broadway’s first major African American producers. He was responsible for shepherding shows to Broadway, including “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” “Eubie,” Author Fugard’s” Lesson’s From Aloes,” as well as the Pulitzer prize-winners “No Place To Be Somebody,” “Whoopee” and the revival of “Guys and Dolls.”
As a man, Ashston was quick to laugh and he loved any theatrical moment that he found amusing. He was also very strict when it came to dollars and cents. You were not going to get any more than the Equity contract called for, not one dime more. Negotiations were out the question…unless he’d worked with you before. He was extremely conscientious about providing jobs for us performers. He’d even go so far as to loan money to you,if there was a need.
Approachable, extremely savvy as a business man, extremely generous and loving, and sometimes a father figure to chorus girls dancers who were away from home for the first time– he was equally these as well.
Let me tell you about … Ashton and me.
It was May of 1976. My girlfriend Kiki, a dancer, and I drove to NYC in my old 1967 Pontiac to audition for the National Touring Company of the hit Broadway musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” It was my first audition for a Broadway show and I was nervous the entire ride to NYC because I did not know what to expect. Once at the audition, I was surprised to see so many people were auditioning. We were broken up into groups of ten males in each group. There must have been ten or more groups. All Broadway auditions require you to dance first, then sing if the people auditioning you are interested in you.
After several hours all the groups had been whittled down to just ten men and I was one of the ten. We were then called and asked to sing eight bars from an up-tempo song. I didn’t have any sheet music to hand to the pianist, so I asked him if he knew the Schaefer Beer Song — to my surprise, he did. I incorporated singing the Schaefer Beer song with the choreography that had just been taught to me, and the people auditioning me screamed with laughter as I began to perform the song and dance. The loudest of them all was this high-pitched, loud, thoroughly amused laugh coming from Ashton Springer. He called me off stage down to the group, all the while laughing, asked my name–told me to go sit over there–and said, “I want him in this show.” And with those five words, my Broadway career was off to a flying start
Ashton hired me as the swing dancer in “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” a chorus dancing role. I didn’t mind; I was happy being in my first Broadway production. I soon learned ALL the male dancing roles as the tour began. One of the great moments Ashton gave me while being a swing dancer out on the road was being driven from Boston, in an emergency, by the Musical Director, the late Danny Holgate, to cover for one of the NY production dancers who was out. Smokey, the swing dancer, was rushed in to save the day because Ashton loved my work! I eventually moved into the show, out of the chorus, to assume the part of “The Time Man,” a role created by the late Charles “Honi” Coles and Vernon Washington. Ashton made sure that I was cast in three more Bubbling Brown Sugar companies from 1977 thru 1979, including a company starring Cab Calloway.
As theater goes, all shows close eventually, and so did the excellent production of “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” It was a good run. While driving a yellow cab in the city a few years later, I received a call from Ashton Springer directly. He was moving a hit production from The Billie Holliday Theater in Brooklyn to Broadway. He asked me to come, meet the other producers, and read from the script. Man, I was so happy to receive that call — that cab was hurting, lol. After five or so readings with other actors, I was given by Ashton the opportunity to create my first Broadway role, Pretty Pete–The Pimp, in “Inacent Black” starring Melba Moore. It put me back on Broadway again, this time creating my first role — which is no small thing. We had a fantastic but short run.
I left NYC in 1983 after performing in the Broadway production of “Dreamgirls,” moving to Chicago after getting married and having my one son. While there, my wife and I created a production entitled “Shoot Me While I’m Happy” at The Victory Gardens Theater in 1986. My late partner, Jaye Stewart, and I then created “Rollin’ With Stevens and Stewart,” a tribute to the last days of Black Vaudeville which ran nationally to 1992.
In 1998, after my partner Jaye Stewart’s passing, I submitted the video of our production of “Rollin’ With Stevens and Stewart” to Ashton Springer, who was my producer from years earlier. He’d heard about our show and was seeking a small vehicle to mount our comeback on the New York stage. Ashton loved entertainment history, as evidenced by BBS and Eubie, so my production on Black Vaudeville was what he wanted.
I’m back — collaborating with my old buddy — but this time as a show creator of a revue about the early days of black vaudeville. It was an homage to the talented performers who, in the early 20th century, lit up the black vaudeville circuit and soldiered on despite broken promises from the T.O.B.A. (Theatre Owners’ Booking Agency, renamed by the performers as Tough On Black Asses). The production was initially produced at a small church on 50th Street as a backer’s audition. Ashton raised enough money to produce an Equity workshop production at Amas Musical theater on 42nd Street before moving the production down to The Billie Holliday Theater. It was here that he and I clashed for the very first time.
The Amas production and The Billie Holliday production were used to develop the script further because Ashton wanted me to add a female character. I did, but Ashton was uneasy with me wearing the hats of co-creator/director, choreographer and star. He decided to bring in a white writer to relieve me of some of my duties and rewrite my production. I disagreed with his changes and Ashton Springer, my friend, my associate, FIRED ME FROM MY PRODUCTION. I fought like hell as he hired others to replace me, but there was nothing I could do. He thought he could do it without me. As the previews began, it became undeniable that a terrible mistake had been made by replacing me with others who knew nothing about Black vaudeville. After deliberations between the producers and me, I was reinstated and the rest is history. One would think that our disagreement had sullied our relationship, but the bond of making a hit and a successful show became our agreed-upon strategy. We both wanted the same thing.
After receiving rave reviews from all the major NY Press, the show was in previews at The 47th Street Theater. We agreed to take that momentum and move the production to a Broadway Theater. That was the plan that everyone was excited about: we were moving to Broadway. And that’s where the wheels came off the train. Two critical things occurred subsequently.
First, on the night of our Broadway Opening, the owner and the lessee of the Kit Kat Klub in The Henry Miller Theater got into “a landlord-tenant dispute”and an injunction was placed on our production, stopping ” Rollin’ on The T.O.B.A.” from opening. Ashton and I suffered through an agonizing three days before the injunction was lifted and we were able to open. The delay cost $100,000 and total losses for the show were estimated at $500,000 when the second, and mortal, blow landed. The Tony Administration Committee ruled the show ineligible because it was not being performed in a Tony-eligible Broadway theater. This was despite the fact that the year before, the revival of “Cabaret” at the Kit Kat Klub had been deemed eligible and “Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A.” was paying full Broadway scale to its actors, stagehands, musicians and box office treasurers. Ashton maintained that the dispensation given to the Roundabout for “Cabaret” was not given to him out of politics, that he was treated as an outsider.
The Tony ruling was the death kneel, the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” the unrecoverable event that brought “Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A.” to its final curtain! Shortly following that heartbreaking event, Aston Springer’s health began to decline. In spite of that, he had hopes of producing my current production, “I Just Want To Tell Somebody.” In Spring of 2013, he and a group of investors came to Washington DC to see my first presentation. Unfortunately, time took its course, and Mr. Ashton Springer joined the heavenly angels on July 22, 2013. I will forever be indebted to this great man, who enabled so many to have Broadway careers. Ashton, I thank you for giving me mine. My shows will forever be dedicated to you.
“I Just Want To Tell Somebody” will have its New York premiere January 6 to 23, presented by Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., directed by Stephen Byrd. Info: www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Smokey Stevens (https://www.smokeystevens.com), one of Broadway’s great song-and-dance men, has adapted his autobiographical novel, “I Just Want to Tell Somebody: The Autobiography of Ronald Smokey Stevens,” into a one-man, two character theater production. The play dramatizes Stevens’ lifelong battle with drugs in which he, at long last, prevailed. “Smokey” plays both himself and his nemesis, a sarcastic doppelganger called “D MAN.” The play ushers us through modern moments of theater history that were Smokey’s triumphs and the journey through drug usage that was nearly his undoing. Theater for the New City will present the New York premiere of the work January 6 to 23, 2022, directed by Stephen Byrd.
Mr. Stevens earned a place on Broadway thanks to raw talent and his wits, becoming a featured ensemble member of such productions as “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” “Inacent Black,” “Dreamgirls,” his own musical, “Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A.,” and tours of “One Mo’ Time” and “Ain’t Misbehavin.” His films include “The Wiz” (as one of the Crows performing with Michael Jackson), “The Cotton Club” and “Times Square.” He danced with such greats as tap master Charles “Honi” Coles, Lucille Ball, Cab Calloway and Gregory Hines, to name a few. He’s now Artistic Director of Capital City Readers Theatre in Washington, DC, recipient of The @NAACP 11th Annual Theater Arts Award, and a documentary filmmaker.
Stevens also co-conceived the vaudeville musical, ”Shoot Me While I’m Happy,” which ran at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. While in New York he also produced “The Sho ‘Nuff Variety Revue” at The Village Gate, “The Rising Stars Cabaret” and productions at The Children’s Theater of Harlem.
In an archival video clip, you can see Stevens performing “The Hop Scop Blues” from “Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A.” (1999). That production was a salute to the genius of the entertainers who toured the black vaudeville circuit known as T.O.B.A.– Theatre Owners’ Booking Association–in the 1920’s and 30’s. It was both a champion and a destroyer of Black Vaudeville.
A native of Washington DC, he began his professional training and career at The D.C. Black Repertory Co., where he studied and performed in repertory for six years. After these studies, he performed in “Showdown Times” on The National Black Touring Circuit.
He adapted his first published book, “I Just Want To Tell Somebody, the Autobiography of Ronald Smokey Stevens,” into a one man stage production of the same title and performed a developmental version of it at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington DC in February, 2011.
He is a graduate of The Community Film Workshop of Chicago, where he produced two 16mm short films. He received a 2011 Heritage Project Grant sponsored by The DC Humanities Council for his first documentary, “Preserving Ledroit Park.” For DCTV, he co-produced a documentary on The Arc, a humanitarian mall serving the community east of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. His other documentaries are “America: An Immigration Nation,” “Dancing Destinations: The Story of DC Hand Dance” and “Black Broadway at The Village Gate.”
He recently published his second book, “The First 60 Years, The History of Afro-American Musical Theater and Entertainment 1865-1930.”
Direction and set design are by Stephen Byrd. Lighting design is by Alexander Bartenieff. Multimedia is by Larry Law.
Director/Set Designer Stephen Byrd hails from Washington, D.C., where he began his theater career at 16 in the Ted Shine production of “Mrs. Patterson,” where he met and performed with Ronald “Smokey” Stevens. He studied Drama at Howard University (BFA cum laude) and trained in acting with James W. Butcher, Glenda Dickerson, and Linda Gravatt and directing with Vera J. Katz and Davey-Marlin Jones. As a matter of personal mission, he has written and directed 18 shows to-date for audiences in non-traditional venues including prisons, nursing homes, shelters for battered women, half-way houses, hospice facilities, homeless shelters, and drug rehab centers. He produced, wrote and directed “Teddy Bear Blues Don’t Last” for the D.C. Black Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C. His acting credits include the lead in Bill Gunn’s Emmy award winning drama “Johnnas” on NBC and the King in the Folger Shakespeare Theater’s educational workshop’s production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
Ronald “Smokey” Stevens writes, “Getting a show mounted in N.Y.C. is not an easy task. I want to thank Ms Field for her mission and vision . I am extremely grateful to her ,and to Theater for the New City, for providing me with the opportunity to share my newest work in such a prestigious historic environment.