Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, who originated the roles of both Hercules Mulligan and James Madison for a little-known but critically acclaimed Broadway musical called Hamilton, and who made many people stand back in awe at his talent while also biting their bottom lips (enough that he was recommended for the Pajiba 10 last year) was recently cast to play Pierre Bezukhov in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Onaodowan began playing the role on July 11 and was expected to do so until September 4, and was receiving many a rave for his performance. Which is why some people were shocked by the announcement that he was being temporarily replaced as the lead so that Mandy Patinkin could take over and also possibly raise ticket sales, which began declining after cast members Josh Groban and Ingrid Michaelson both departed the show.
Once news got out about this (a Black lead actor receiving critical acclaim for his performance being asked to step aside and make room for a more established lead actor who is White), people were not at all happy about this and they made their dissatisfaction loud and clear for all to hear. One of those people was Rafael Casal, a friend of Onaodowan’s who is also founder of the #BARS Workshop at the Public Theater.
Multiple Broadway & TV shows, learned two instruments for this, gets rave reviews, then gives him only two weeks before replacing him. https://t.co/WAbvAAYNmO— RAFAEL CASAL (@RafaelCasal) July 26, 2017
Imagine 2 weeks into your great review in a new show, the producers come to u & "ask" you to step down so a white actor can take your place? pic.twitter.com/QV9Y83bnvi— RAFAEL CASAL (@RafaelCasal) July 26, 2017
The demands for actors of color on Broadway is absurd. 2 weeks to boost your ticket sales? Before replacing with a white established actor? https://t.co/WAbvAAYNmO— RAFAEL CASAL (@RafaelCasal) July 26, 2017
Actors of color can't even express frustration w/ inequality in the arts for fear of being met w/ even fewer opportunities to rise.— RAFAEL CASAL (@RafaelCasal) July 26, 2017
Actors of color on Broadway are required to make themselves famous enough to be in the shows that white actors get famous from.— RAFAEL CASAL (@RafaelCasal) July 26, 2017
How do you call him a terrific Pierre and then tell him to step down for someone else?? You don't get diversity points for a 2 week stint https://t.co/Xn2hJdTcMo— Ivana (@IvanaBerlin) July 26, 2017
how many times Broadway/ Hollywood taken back a role to give it to a white person & we never knew. thanks @RafaelCasal for saying not today.— Shanelle Little (@ShanelleLittle) July 28, 2017
there's a lot to unpack from this Great Comet situation, but one of my main takeaways is we need more PRODUCERS of color up in here (P1)— Felicia Fitzpatrick (@felicianicole86) July 28, 2017
They wouldn't have any trouble recognizing the "racial optics" of it all. Not considering that is a pretty big display of privilege and (p2)— Felicia Fitzpatrick (@felicianicole86) July 28, 2017
it's why we need diverse voices AT THE TABLE, not just on the stage.— Felicia Fitzpatrick (@felicianicole86) July 28, 2017
Despite the original announcement making it seem as if Onaodowan’s absence from The Great Comet was only temporary and that he would be back in three weeks, Onaodowan wasn’t feeling the same way and declared that his performance on August 4 would be his last and that he would not be returning.
My last show will be Aug 13th! Peep below for some words… Or not. 😀 pic.twitter.com/cKlgmdBqId— The Incredible Oak (@OakSmash) July 28, 2017
And it didn’t take very long for the producers of The Great Comet to explain themselves and do what they could in order to save face:
Our deepest apologies. pic.twitter.com/Mks7XLGxbq— The Great Comet (@GreatCometBway) July 28, 2017
As a matter of fact, the dissatisfaction with how Onaodowan had been treated became loud and clear enough that it was eventually heard by one person: Mandy Patinkin. Once he became aware of what happened and how people were reacting to this, he announced that he was turning down the role and that he wasn’t going to appear in The Great Comet after all.
“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,” Mr. Patinkin said. “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.”
I'm heartened by Mr. Patinkins statement. I'm proud of this community for raising concerns. This is the function of the arts… https://t.co/0OCc5l5XD3— Ariana DeBose (@ArianaDeBose) July 28, 2017
Cynthia Erivo, who shot to fame thanks to her Tony-winning performance as Celie in the recent Broadway revival of The Color Purple, spoke for many with her words of support for Onaodowan on Twitter:
What I know for a fact is that Oak worked extremely hard for this. Which makes this occurrence distasteful and uncouth.— Cynthia Erivo (@CynthiaEriVo) July 26, 2017
Mandy is a wonderful man, Oak is a wonderful man, this has been handled badly. Ticket sales shouldnt override a person doing his job.— Cynthia Erivo (@CynthiaEriVo) July 26, 2017
And this means Mandy doesn't get the chance to fully enjoy his takeover, and Oak doesn't fully get to enjoy his start or finish. Poor show— Cynthia Erivo (@CynthiaEriVo) July 26, 2017
So to you @OakSmash I offer my sincere apologies for this mishandling. You deserve better, and are worth much more than this.— Cynthia Erivo (@CynthiaEriVo) July 26, 2017
As of right now, there is no official word on the future of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and whether or not it will end up closing sooner than expected. If that does happen, there would be little to nothing worth cheering or feeling good about, as there is obviously no pleasure whatsoever to be derived from the premature closing of a show on Broadway/Off-Broadway/Off-Off-Broadway that would result in hundreds of people losing employment and having to look elsewhere to find positions on other shows. And job-hunting fucking sucks, no matter the industry. However, if you treat non-White creatives as if they’re easily replaceable and expendable, if you treat them and their contributions like an afterthought, if you go out of your way to ignore or forget how shows like Hamilton, The Color Purple, and Shuffle Along, and all of their contributors recently reminded us yet again how much diversity and representation matters (especially during last year’s Tony Awards, where many viewers tuned in to see all of the diverse talent on display)…don’t be too surprised when these actions blow up in your face.