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On Wednesday, Broadway Black broke the news of Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan’s departure from the The Great Comet, and being replaced by theatre vet Mandy Patinkin, citing low ticket sales as the cause for the abrupt decision. The news sparked outrage from the Theatre community, with many citing ramped issues with diversity and how the underlying issue of race seemed to be playing a role.

Several actors, writers and producers jumped to the defense of Oak, Rafael Casal, who condemned the theatre community in a series of tweets.

 

#TheGreatComet quickly became a nationally trending topic. The amount of backlash quickly reached Producer Howard Kagan, who spoke about the decision and responded to the outrage by stating:

“This continues our show’s remarkable history of having great actors and singers see the show as audience members, only to tell us they are inspired to join the cast! Whenever possible we will accommodate them as we did here with Mandy and his Homeland TV schedule. Oak, who was scheduled to appear as Pierre for this period graciously agreed to make room for Mandy, and we sincerely hope that Oak will return to us in the fall or winter. He is a terrific Pierre.”

 

Oak, released a separate statement, letting us all know the break up was not as fluffy as Kagan made it seem. He stated:

I always try to speak from my heart with love after listening. I have listened. I’m more than grateful for all the love and support the community and fans have shown me.  It makes what we do and deal with as artists easier when you know many people do indeed have your back and that you are valued for your work. In spite of everything, I am grateful to have had the time to bring this character to life with a remarkable cast that truly make the Imperial Theater a sacred place every night.  My pops would always tell me to be aware of the company you keep.  I’m fully aware of the remarkable talents this cast holds, with Denee at the helm.  My work is just a reflection of what they bring, have brought and will continue to bring, be it me, Mandy, whomever is co-pilot to Denee. AUGUST 13th WILL BE MY LAST SHOW! I will not be returning. So make room in your schedule between now and Aug 13th. Come through, have a drink, and let’s celebrate the time we have because as always, that’s all we are guaranteed.  We make the most of the gifts we are given and I’m driven to deliver a defining moment in time, with every line I let loose on stage. #MynameisOak #TheHomiesRollDEEP #TheFansMadeRoom #WeAreTheChange #IPierredAndProspered #MyPierreWillPerish #August13th #OnwardsAndUpwords #KatyPerry #SkateyPierre?

A post shared by TheIncredibleOak (@oaksmash) on

“I always try to speak from my heart with love after listening. I have listened. I’m more than grateful for all the love and support the community and fans have shown me. It makes what we do and deal with as artists easier when you know many people do indeed have your back and that you are valued for your work. In spite of everything, I am grateful to have had the time to bring this character to life with a remarkable cast that truly make the Imperial Theater a sacred place every night. My pops would always tell me to be aware of the company you keep. I’m fully aware of the remarkable talents this cast holds, with Denee [Benton] at the helm. My work is just a reflection of what they bring, have brought and will continue to bring, be it me, Mandy, whomever is co-pilot to Denee. AUGUST 13th WILL BE MY LAST SHOW! I will not be returning. So make room in your schedule between now and Aug 13th. Come through, have a drink, and let’s celebrate the time we have because as always, that’s all we are guaranteed. We make the most of the gifts we are given and I’m driven to deliver a defining moment in time, with every line I let loose on stage.”

Following the brief silence from Wednesday, in a turn of events reported by The New York Times this afternoon, Mandy has decided to step down from the show citing the concerns with race, and the backlash from the theatre community. He states

“My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor. I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.”

According to the New York Times, they were blindsided by the decision and have not announced any next steps with the show. However, producers of Great Comet, led by lead producers Howard and Janet Kagan, did issue an official apology stating:

“As part of our sincere efforts to keep ‘Comet’ running for the benefit of its cast, creative team, crew, investors and everyone else involved, we arranged for Mandy Patinkin to play Pierre. However, we had the wrong impression of how Oak felt about the casting announcement and how it would be received by members of the theater community, which we appreciate is deeply invested in the success of actors of color – as are we – and to whom we are grateful for bringing this to our attention. We regret our mistake deeply, and wish to express our apologies to everyone who felt hurt and betrayed by these actions.”

Stay tuned for updates as this is story continues to unfold…

  • JD

    It’s a shame that this was handled so poorly by the Great Comet producer. But ultimately, black actors will suffer most from this episode. Okieriete will likely gain a reputation as a liability who can not sell a show, and dozens of black actors in the ensemble will lose their jobs when it closes even earlier due to Patinkin’s departure. I wouldn’t be surprised if it closes before mid August.

    And while this was handled so poorly by the Great Comet, the reaction was handled even more poorly by the twitterverse, particularly Rafael Casal. In my opinion, his behavior is exactly why I am leery of many “allies” who want to “use their privilege” to speak loudly about a perceived racial injustice. Casal spoke louder than any black person in the business, including the affected performers. At the end of the day, he gets a pat on the back, while black folks have to LIVE AND WORK amidst the lingering resentment. Frankly, I think Casal cared more about raising his own profile in this situation, by riding Onaodowan’s coattails.

    “Raising awareness” is rarely the most effective/important action. In this case, for example, Onaodowan may have needed some advocates who are actually important in the industry to ensure he gets a nice new gig etc. There may have also been more industry-wide asks to make to improve current circumstances for black actors. A thoughtful, invested, and relevant individual could have tried to leverage this situation for a much better outcome that benefited black actors.

    We didn’t get anything positive from this absolute mess, and will likely lose even more in the long run.

  • DoHiTi

    @JD is spot-on. I personally think this is an overreaction—and one which may only unleash a devastating impact on actors of color for a long time to come.

    First, I just have to get this bitter taste off my tongue and say that I LOATHE Mandy Patinkin. His ham-fisted overacting, his screechy pre-pubescent voice, and—above all—the overall smug presence he brings to everything makes my physically ill at the very sight of him. I know he’s a huge star with a huge following and good for him and for them…but I would rather spend an evening with a box of living snakes locked around my head than see or hear one of his performances.

    That’s what makes it even more difficult for me to try to defend his hiring in this case…but first let’s look at this objectively. Clearly the show was in financial trouble after the departure of their first big star, Josh Groban, during the already slow summer season. Oak provided a bit of a boost thanks to his “Hamilton” pedigree, but he didn’t nearly bring in the kinds of audiences that Patinkin does—people literally fly around the world to see him (whereas I would fly around the world to get AWAY from him…but again I digress). So they had this chance to get Patinkin during a rare window hiatus from his TV show. And quite simply, getting a big star like that to bring in big audiences for a spell could make all the difference between the show closing soon or staying afloat another 6 months. And that’s 6 months of employment for everyone involved with the show from the rest of the cast to the crew to the ushers in the theater to the guy working the snack bar. The choice to bring in Patinkin wasn’t therefore just a “luxury” but potentially a NECESSITY to save the show and the jobs of countless people who touch it in some way. They did the same thing when they replaced Brittain Ashford with the better-known star Ingrid Michaelson just before this. But because they were both white women it didn’t receive the same scrutiny…

    So that’s the objective look. Now let’s get into the subjective part…Oak is black, Patinkin is white. (VERY white, the talentless, pale-faced hack-of-all-trades…sorry.) But this wasn’t a decision driven in any way by race, it was driven by profit and what was in the best interest to support the continuation of the show. Does diversity matter? ABSOLUTELY. And if Oak were the first black cast member breaking new ground in this show then the symbolism of having him in the show might mean so much more than any box office receipts. But this is a show that had already been given the “Extraordinary Excellence in Diversity on Broadway Award” for the 2016-17 theatrical season by Equity’s National Equal Employment Opportunity Committee. At one point the show had actors of color in all three leads—roles in which they played 19th-Century Russian aristocracy who clearly would not have been minorities and therefore again shows the commitment to diversity here. Now they make a financially-driven decision for the best of everyone involved (with the possible exception of Oak, who would have had 3 weeks trimmed off his time in the role) but because one actor is white and one is black, all of the other issues at play are being overlooked in favor of playing the “race card” in a situation where it isn’t warranted.

    Even if you disagree with that (and of course you are free to do so and I truly respect all sides of the discussion…Well, except maybe for anyone who tries to say that Mandy Patinkin isn’t a churlish ass, but I digress once again…) I think we can all agree about the potential fallout from this: Now the show has lost both Oak AND Patinkin. They have to limit their search for a replacement among only black actors because they won’t want another uproar about the “optics” of bringing in a non-black actor. And unless they’re able to get a huuuge African-American box office star on short order, the show will go bankrupt and shit down and EVERYONE will be out of work. And for a very long time, the directors and producers of other Broadway shows of course won’t come out and say it, but they will be hesitant to ever again bring a black actor into a lead role because they think that they will then have to put ONLY actors of color I to the role thereafter or risk this same backlash that it likely going to put “Comet” out of business.

    So unfortunate I think this will have a chilling effect on the hiring of actors of color on Broadway for a very long time—and at a very unfortunate time when our country NEEDS more diversity and when shows like “Hamilton” and—yes—”Come were succeeding in bringing unprecedented levels of diversity to the tight NY theater community.

  • mss

    This site ultimately did Oak and black actors a greater disservice than Mr. Kagan. The role was not a “black” role, it is an “actors” role. Now producers will think twice about replacing white actors with black actors for exactly this reason. Mr. Kagan’s job was to sell tickets. Congratulations to those on this site who actually made this yet another unnecessary and undeserving issue of race. You killed the show and helped an entire cast become unemployed. The only sadder thing would be if you claimed victory.

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