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How #MakeRoomForOak Made A Whole Lot Of Noise

By Brian Richards | Social Media | August 1, 2017 |

By Brian Richards | Social Media | August 1, 2017 |

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.

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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.

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:

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.”

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:

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.

Brian Richards is a Staff Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.