Keith Randolph Smith and Harvy Blanks in Jitney on Broadway

Producer Eric Falkenstein combines his interests of human rights and theater by bringing Jitney’s moving message to Detroit.

Featured photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

By Alice Burdick Schweiger, Contributing Writer

August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Jitney, which won a Tony Award in 2017 for Best Revival of a Play, can be seen at the Music Hall in Detroit Nov. 12-16 in a partnership between Broadway in Detroit and Detroit Public Theatre.

Set in the late 1970s in Pittsburgh (where Wilson grew up), it’s the story of African American men trying to make a living by driving a jitney, an unlicensed cab. They provide this gypsy cab service for a community that probably wouldn’t be able to hail a cab otherwise.

The play is centered on a group of men whose business is in jeopardy because of gentrification, leaving no place for their home base. Meanwhile, explosive relationships and deep secrets are revealed. The show retains its director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Original Broadway cast members Anthony Chisholm, Harvy Blanks and Keith Randolph Smith are in Detroit as well.

Eric Falkenstein, lead producer of Jitney, saw the show performed years ago and was passionate about bringing it to New York and on tour.

“It’s a heartfelt, powerful show that strikes a chord with audiences,” he says. “This touring production is almost identical to the Broadway run.”

Jitney is one of many theater sensations Falkenstein has produced. Among them, mega-hits Moulin Rouge, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sound Inside, which just opened to rave reviews.

And, he’s a producer of Hello, Dolly, which will play the Fisher Theatre Nov. 19-Dec. 1. (Look for a story next week.)

Born and raised in Connecticut, Falkenstein has always been interested in human rights and theater. He graduated Yale Law School and then worked on human rights issues. He joined a law firm and transitioned into entertainment law. He started to produce plays and films, and opened his own company, Spark Productions, in 2003.

His first Broadway show, as associate producer, was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Later, Falkenstein was lead producer for Miller’s All My Sons. “The time I got to spend with Arthur was precious,” he says. “I only wish I was around earlier to spend more time with him.”
Over the years, Falkenstein has produced dozens of Broadway shows including Network, The Lifespan of a Fact, The Iceman Cometh, Fiddler on the Roof, Ragtime, The Wavery Gallery, Present Laughter and The Color Purple. He also produced several films, including Butler, directed by Lee Daniels and starring Oprah.

Always looking for the next big show to bring to New York, he travels broadly. “I look for a play I think will appeal to today’s audience, has something to say and speaks to a social issue,” says Falkenstein, who has won seven Tony Awards.

His show The Visitor is coming to Broadway in the spring, and the play Luna Gale, about a social worker deciding whether to take a child away, is in casting. He is also working hard on a sweeping two-part epic about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

“It’s a passion project of my career,” he says, adding the working title of the show is MLK. “I have been working on this project with civil rights icons Andrew Young, who has become a dear friend, and John Lewis, who took me to Alabama. They are both extraordinary human beings.”

On a personal front, Falkenstein, the father of three children ages 11, 10 and 5, enjoys exposing his kids to theater. About his Judaism, Falkenstein says he considers himself somewhere between Reform and Conservative.

“I grew up in an appreciative if not particularly observant Jewish home, went to Hebrew school two afternoons a week, religious school on the weekends and attended three-hour Shabbat services.”

Falkenstein is looking forward to Jitney playing in Detroit. “The audience reaction to this show has been spectacular,” he says. “I love theater that stirs you, when people walk out moved and changed. I think this is the case with a masterpiece like Jitney.”

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