The universe is in perfect alignment when a Lady gets her due: Irene Gandy is receiving the 2020 Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre Sunday, Sept. 26 at the 74th annual Tony Awards, being held at the Winter Garden Theatre. Gandy has been in the business for 51 years and in that time has been a press agent and the only Black female member of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. Gandy has the distinct honor of being the only press agent with a caricature in Sardi’s Restaurant. In the 36 years I have had the pleasure to know her and work with Irene she has always been there for Black journalists and always makes sure to get me the invites and interviews that I request and on the Tony Red Carpet, and consistently brings over the talent I need to speak with. Irene has always gone out of her way to make sure that the Black press is accommodated and that has always been a very vital thing.
In her 51 years, Gandy has also been a producer on Broadway with productions like “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” and she co-produced the national tour of “Sarafina” in South Africa. Gandy has worked on more than 100 Broadway productions and those have included tremendous shows like “The Great Society,” “American Son,” “China Doll,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “You Can’t Take It With You.”
One of the distinctive attributes that anyone who encounters Irene knows, is that she is always upbeat, vibrant, and shoots from the hip. Irene is well known for saying what she feels and being very blunt. It is an attribute that endears her to many. Of course, hearing of her Tony honor I had to sit down and talk with my friend. Irene talks about the Tony Honor and her stunning career, a glorious Q&A follows, please enjoy.
AmNews: Irene what was your reaction when you found out you were getting the Excellence in Theatre Award from the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing?
IG: I cried for 5 minutes.
AmNews: What other honors have you recently received?
IG: I was appointed to the board of directors of the Drama League. Jeffrey Richards and I were the first press agents to join the Drama League years ago.
AmNews: You are the only Black female press agent who is part of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers, what does being part of this group mean, what are its benefits?
IG: I’m the only one for over 50 years. The benefits, it’s a union position. You get union benefits, good medical, they buy stock for you and you have a pension for your lifetime.
AmNews: Irene, you started off as a press agent and have done this for over 51 years, you then went to the next level and became a producer, co-producing productions like “Porgy and Bess,” “Lady Day At Emerson Bar and Grill” and the tour of “Sarafina” in South Africa, how were you able to delve into this side of the industry? What were the challenges you found in doing this?
IG: There were no challenges. I don’t think of things as challenges. I don’t think of things, I just do it. In terms of being a producer, you need money, I never use my own money. Producing means producing an event. I like being a producer, if I’m going in as a press agent you have to have things approved. If I’m a producer I can serve my African American community much better. I’m a community outreach producer because I like doing outreach to the community.
AmNews: Your roots are with Douglas Turner Ward and the Negro Ensemble Company, what were the valuable lessons that you took from working there?
IG: I still use them today. That I’m a Negro. Douglas Turner Ward in 1968, he said, “Black that, Black this.” He named it Negro Ensemble because you can always go home. I never forget the Black press. Black theater has such an importance. Remember where you came from and remember your foundation because you can always go home. And be excellent in your craft. Doug wanted excellence, but you can’t have excellence if you don’t have a play. He created that space.
AmNews: What were the most exciting movements of working on over 100 Broadway shows?
IG: I still get excited. I usually stay in the now. The exciting moment was watching Eubie Blake cry at opening night in Philadelphia and then him seeing it open on Broadway. He saw the actors were able to kiss and hug each other on stage and they weren’t allowed to do that. I loved the David Mamet shows, working with Alan Alda. “August Osage County,” that was wonderful as well. Jeffrey [Richard] had Phylicia [Rashad] to do that role. I think I’m going to get excited with “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” Douglas [Turner Ward] would have smiled seeing all those young guys. I was excited seeing Audra doing “Lady Day” every night. I worked on a lot of white shows and I like “The Glass Menagerie.”
AmNews: Irene, you have always been the publicist for some of the most beloved Black performers, what was your approach with handling these greats like Lena Horne, Patti LaBelle and so many others?
IG: The thing is I’m just me, there was no approach. I was honest with them. Lena was very real. I’m just me with everybody. With Kerry Washington, we worked together on “RACE” and I try to advise people to just be you. Broadway intimidates people, just be you, just do you. There’s a rhythm, so I try to advise. I love the actors, I respect them, but I’m not a fan, because I couldn’t do my work if I was a fan, because that would show favoritism. You’re providing a service. I love Phylicia Rashad in the show she did at the Public Theatre, she had so many layers I cried. When I’m not working on a show that’s when I’m a fan.
AmNews: You have been honored with Awards from AUDELCO—The Pioneer Award, NAACP-LGBTQ David Weaver Prize for Excellence in the Arts, Project 1 Voice Lifetime Achievement for outstanding achievements and vision to artistic excellence in the American Theater, National Action Network’s “Woman of Excellence Award,” Vanguard Award from Black to Broadway Productions, and many other honors, you are a part of the New York Public Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Oral History Project, you are on the boards of City College for the Arts, Harlem Week and New Heritage Theater—how do you make the time for all the things that you do, why is it important to participate in all these activities?
IG: When I’m on a board I’m a working member. On the board of Harlem Week I try to bring my celeb expertise to the Harlem Week event. I make sure they give a scholarship. During the pandemic Harlem Week had a GoFundMe—that money that we got helped people who were experiencing food insecurity, we partner with Silicon Harlem so that kids can have laptops, Harlem Hospital to do PPE, and School of Nursing would go into senior citizen housing and students would let them go on the laptop and visit with their family. All those things are part of what Harlem Week does. The other boards I try to bring awareness. October is Harlem Advocacy Month, I had Great Society cast do a panel. I just want to bring new ideas, it’s all about community.
AmNews: How did you come to have your own Lady Irene fur line coming in 2022, I know you have always dressed so stylishly?
IG: My best friend introduced me to a tribal leader, we were laughing and talking. She made me a knight. Her name is Queen Diambi, Tribal Leader of Bakwa Luntu Royal Court of the Democratic Republic of Congo for HRH Queen Diambi Kabatusuila. So, my official title is Lady Irene Gandy. I started a fur line in 2015, one was featured in Vogue Magazine and we’re coming out with more in 2022.
AmNews: What advice would you give to the current generation of Blacks who want to start off as press agents and move up?
IG: The thing is nobody wants to be a press agent, cause it’s a dressed-up job. You’re not the talent, you’re the governance. You’re providing the service, it’s not yours. There’s different kinds of press agents, now with the internet you have to have a special skill. Now most talents are doing things for themselves. Theater is the only one and even that is suspect. If you want to be a press agent you have to know where you fit. I can’t do music, political or fashion PR. You have to know why you want to be a press agent. You’re constantly on call. When you’re given a particular show, most stars have their own personal press agent and I love to work with them. You have to decide do you really want to wait hand and foot on people. I’m surprised I’m still working, I think what makes me who I am is I personalize everything—I care.
AmNews: What is your personal philosophy on happiness?
IG: For me family and living your faith is important. My excellence is rooted in my daughter loves me. The show comes up and the show goes down. I appreciate the Black press, I live to see walking into that room to see all of those young actors, company managers, assistant directors that were all of color. That to me is key. I pray to God in the morning and ask him to stay out of his way. My daily prayer is “Lord let me be able to tie my shoes this morning” because those are the things that are important.