By Audrey J. Bernard, Style & Society Editor

michelle obama - trip to bountiful

First Lady Michelle Obama remarks about Lifetime TV’s special screening of “The Trip to Bountiful” which she hosted at The White House (Photo by AP/Evan Vucci)

*As part of Black History Month, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a special screening of Lifetime Television’s film version of the Tony Award-nominated Broadway revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful Monday, February 24, 2014 in the White House.

Based on Oscar, Pulitzer Prize, and Emmy Award winning author Horton Foote’s Tony Award nominated play, The Trip to Bountiful — set during the final years of the Jim Crow South — highlights a courageous and moving story of liberation, as well as a humor-filled celebration of the human spirit set during the final years of the Jim Crow South.

Michael Wilson, who directed both the play and the film, attended the event along with actors from the film including Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams, Blair Underwood, and Keke PalmerThe Trip to Bountiful debuts on Lifetime Saturday, March 8 at 8 pm ET/PT.

“African-American History Month is about honoring those who came before us and resolving to do our part to live up to that example,” stated the First Lady.  “This is so exciting – it is a wonderful movie and I am so thrilled that we have the opportunity to show it here at the White House,” lamented Mrs. Obama.  “I had the pleasure of seeing the Broadway play last summer in New York with my girls and we were blown away by the story of persistence and hope and the ties that bind us all together.”

Mrs. Obama says the month is also about honoring, in her words, “those who demanded more from the world around them and those who reached for higher standards through their life’s work – whether that’s as a movie star like Ms. Tyson or the millions of folks out there like Carrie Watts.”

In The Trip to Bountiful, Carrie Watts, begrudgingly lives with her busy, overprotective son, Ludie (Underwood) and pretentious daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Williams).  No longer able to drive and forbidden to travel alone, she wishes for freedom from the confines of the house and begs her son to take her on a visit to her hometown of Bountiful.  When he refuses, Mrs. Watts is undeterred and makes an escape to the local bus station, where she befriends Thelma (Palmer), a young woman traveling home.  When Ludie and Jessie Mae discover she is gone, they call in law enforcement to help, but Mrs. Watts is one step ahead of them and convinces the local sheriff to help her on her journey home to Bountiful.

Foote originally wrote The Trip to Bountiful for television in 1953 and it made its Broadway debut in 1954.  The play was adapted into a motion picture in 1985, when star Geraldine Page won an Academy Award for Best Actress and Foote was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.  In the 2013 Broadway revival produced by Front Row Productions, the play garnered four Tony nominations, including Best Revival of a Play, Best Featured Actress in a Play, Best Sound Design and a win for Tyson for Best Actress in a Play for her role as Carrie Watts.

Produced by Ostar Productions, Lifetime’s production of The Trip to Bountiful is executive produced by Tyson along with Bill Haber, Hallie Foote and Jeff HayesMichael Wilson, who directed the celebrated play, makes his television directorial debut with this project.  The First Lady admitted that when she grows up she wants to be like Cicely Tyson.

alia jones harvey & stephen c byrd

Broadway Producers Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey (Photo courtesy Front Row Productions)

*Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey, Broadway’s leading African American producers, were honored with Pioneer of the Arts Awards at the Riant Theatre’s Strawberry One-Act Festival 25th Season Launch Party — a free, fun cultural day of the arts for adults and youngsters — on Sunday, February 9, 2014 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1040 Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York.  The Riant Theatre’s free launch party was packed with theatre, film, book, music, poetry dance, award programs and creative writing workshops.

The dynamic producing team of Byrd and Jones-Harvey left Wall Street to create acclaimed star-studded productions like “Romeo and Juliet” with Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad; “The Trip To Bountiful” with Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr.; “A Street Car Named Desire” with Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker; and “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” with Phylicia Rashad, James Earl Jones, Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose.

“Alia and I think outside the box,” explained Byrd, a former Goldman Sachs executive whose Front Row Productions with Jones-Harvey is the only African American theatre production firm on Broadway.  Their formula for developing hit Broadway shows for African American audiences has resulted in top grossers like the revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”  Later on the London stage, it earned the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival of a Play.  “If we cast a production interracially and get panned by the critics, it doesn’t matter to us because African Americans want to see their talent,” said Byrd.  “They want to see Terrence Howard.  They want to see James Earl Jones.  They don’t care what the New York Times says.”

Their formula for developing hit Broadway shows for African American audiences has resulted in top grossers like the revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Later on the London stage, it earned the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for Best Revival of a Play.

“If we cast a production interracially and get panned by the critics, it doesn’t matter to us because African Americans want to see their talent,” said Byrd.  “They want to see Terrence Howard. They want to see James Earl Jones.  They don’t care what the New York Times says.”

The business duo uses the fine art quality of an August Wilson play and the marketing methods of a Tyler Perry play when creating their Broadway productions. “We’re approaching these productions as if they are start-up businesses. They take all of the research and planning of any start-up business,” said Jones-Harvey, a former NASA executive who holds a MBA and masters degrees in engineering and math. “Each time you put on a production, you need to know what market you are targeting. The profit margins are all in reaching your market efficiently.”

Other Pioneer of the Arts Awards were presented to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer Lloyd Price, whose hits include “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “Stagger Lee,” and B. Jeffrey Madoff’, documentary filmmaker and commercial producer-director, behind the broadcast of Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

“I really liked the fact that these African American producers don’t depend on the papers to validate them to fill the seats in the theatres,” said Van Dirk Fisher, founder of the Riant Theatre and artistic director Strawberry One-Act Festival.  “Sometimes artists are complaining that there are not enough roles out there.  But, we need to take charge and tell our own stories so we don’t have to beg other people to help us.  The fact that these two producers have been doing it successfully has been daring and bold and amazing.”

The February 9 event was jam-packed with interactive arts including a book signing of “Volume 8 of the Best Plays from the Strawberry One-Act Festival;” Video Diaries Project short film screenings; “Cold April,” about schoolgirls during the 1994 Rwandan genocide; and “The Brothers Texas,” the Riant Youth Empowerment Award film by Ashton PinaKory French’s drama “Abramovic” about Midwestern twenty-year olds and fine art was performed.

Additionally, activities included dazzling dance troupe Sharon Zaslaw & The Belly Jazz Dolls, singer Boncellia Lewis and author readings by Tandra-Zawadi, Laura Bowman and Veona Thomas.  The playwright and creative writer’s workshop participants presented their work to the evening audience.  The Strawberry One-Act Festival has presented over 2,500 one-act plays since its inception.  For more information, please visit: www.therianttheatre.com or call 646-623-3488.

Byrd and Jones-Harvey are currently producing Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson Jackson with an opening night set for Thursday, April 3, 2014 for a 14-week limited engagement run through Sunday, June 15, 2014. Previews start March 8, 2014.

Originally, Diahann Carroll, 78, was supposed to star opposite Washington in the legendary production in the role of Lena Younger, but pulled out citing the heavy work load was too much.  The show must go on!  The producers immediately replaced Carroll with acclaimed actress Richardson, who is married to celebrated actor Samuel L. Jackson.  Broadway buzz went through the roof about Carroll returning to the stage particularly after 80-year old Cicely Tyson won a Tony when she returned after a 30 year hiatus in The Trip to Bountiful.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson made her Broadway debut in the revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and GoneHer offBroadway credits include Love, Loss and What I Wore,  Casanova, For Colored Girls…, Spell #7, Unfinished Woman (NYSF); Elliot Loves (Promenade); The Talented Tenth (MTC); From the Mississippi Delta (Negro Ensemble Co.); Boogie Woogie and Booker T., Perdido, Nonsectarian Conversations…, Dr. Beck (Henry Street).She has appeared in the films Mothers and Daughters, Bolden!, Blackout, Freedomland, The Fighting Temptations, U.S. Marshalls, Lone Star, Losing Isaiah, When A Man Loves a Woman, Sleepless in Seattle, Lorenzo’s Oil, Fried Green Tomatoes,  Malcolm X.  Her TV credits include “100 Centre Street” (A&E), “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” “Unchained Memories: Slave Narratives” (HBO), “Jazz,” “Baseball,” “The Civil War” (PBS), “My Super Sweet 16” (MTV), “The Water is Wide” (Hallmark), “Law & Order,” “Boston Public,” “NYPD Blue,” “Judging Amy,” “Chicago Hope,”  “Sesame Street,” “Ally McBeal,” “One Life to Live,” “Nightman.”

New York based award-winning journalist Audrey J. Bernard covers entertainment, book reviews, fashion & beauty, film, lifestyles, theater and travel for the Electronic Urban Report and other outlets.  Contact her via: [email protected]

audrey bernard

Audrey J. Bernard