This week there has been a lot of controversy over Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan’s departure from Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. After producers of the show and writer Dave Malloy commented on the casting of Mandy Patinkin three weeks into Oak’s run, they announced that Mandy will not be replacing Oak in the role of Pierre.
After much speculation and rumor, many fans of the show are blaming critics and social media for the controversy in the first place. The backlash first came about due to that situation that Mandy Patinkin, a white actor, and bigger name, was replacing Oak, a black actor, in a role in such short notice. Putting the blame game aside, I want to reflect on this situation, before we close the door on this much-exhausted conversation.
First off, I love The Great Comet. I think it’s not only one of the most creative shows of the year, but also in the last decade that has played Broadway. I hope I will eventually be able to see the show and wish for it to continue. It’s terrible that this great show is struggling financially and might face closure, especially after this controversy. The Broadway market is tough, and I respect anyone that has the creative drive to take their show all the way to face the toughest audience in the world.
Second, Mandy Patinkin is an incredible actor and a legend, and I think he would be perfect for the role of Pierre. I commend him for speaking out so eloquently on the subject and giving credit to Oak’s character and performance as well. While Mandy being a part of The Great Comet will probably not happen after this week, if the show were to continue I would love to see him in this musical. However, I am wondering if having him wait to take over the role of Pierre could have waited until Oak’s departure in September. I understand the box office pressure and scheduling is tough, but it might have been the more strategic way to introduce Mandy. This also would have given Oak his time in the production and satisfied the fans, many who are coming out to see his incredibly reviewed performance.
Lastly, many are saying that several critics and fans are turning The Great Comet controversy into a “race thing,” including myself after the article I wrote for On Stage Blog. I have even received messages online, calling me a “race baiter.” Upon reflection, I would have changed some parts of the article, because no one should ever claim their writing is perfect. I am always trying to improve my reporting when covering theatre topics, clearly and thoughtfully. However, I do not apologize for writing the article and continuing this conversation. My goal is exploring the questions no one is asking, analyzing the situation from an artistic, political, and cultural perspective.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where perception is everything. While people tell us to not turn a situation into a “race thing,” it’s simply not possible. We can’t change the color of our skin, just as we can’t change our gender or sexuality, that is a part of our identity. While this casting choice was not viewed or intended by The Great Comet creative team to be prejudice, that’s how fans perceived it. It was cutting short an opportunity of a black actor, who spent time learning this difficult role, to be replaced halfway through his run by a white actor with a bigger name. I found that fascinating, and wrote about the topic not out of spite, but out of curiosity and speculation. I wanted to open the conversation intent on possibly finding a solution when it comes to diversity on Broadway as a whole.
In the future, I think we can all learn from this controversy that it’s important to look at all aspects of a production from multiple angles. Mounting a Broadway show is like running a business, and while the point of a business is to be financial successful, it’s also important to pay attention to detail before making a decision. We make mistakes, some larger than others, and we learn how to do better in the future.
Careful planning, better communication, and clearer press could have prevented the situation from escalating as far as it did. Topics like race are difficult to talk about, especially in the theater. However, having this conversation from a place of mutual respect and an open mind will create a more positive narrative.