If you've been following theatre news for the past 24-hours, there is quite the mess going down at Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. It was announced that current Pierre, Okieriete "Oak" Onaodowan, will end his limited engagement on Augst 13th and that Broadway legend Mandy Patinkin will step in the role until September 3rd.
While many theatre fans rejoiced at the news of Patinkin making a short-lived return to Broadway, many were left wondering, "What happened with Oak?"
Was it a box office related decision? Was it a chemistry issue?
I was ready to accept that we may never know for sure but then, because he can't resist saying stupid things, producer Howard Kagan offered up this tidbit to Broadway.com
"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."
I'll admit, my jaw dropped a bit at this. What Kagan is saying is that Patinkin saw the show and obviously loved it, mentioned to producers that he would love to play the role someday and the producers presumably saying "Well how about right now?" and decided to end Oak's run early to accommodate Patinkin's filming schedule.
While the ridiculousness of this extends beyond race to simple professionalism, the racial image cannot be ignored. What we have is a black actor, who replaced a white actor, being asked to step down from a job to make room for a white actor. I'm not saying that this decision was racially motivated but the visual looks terrible.
Now you might say this happens all the time, but I've never:
1. Seen it happen this soon into a run.
2. Seen a producer admit to it.
Then again this isn't the first time Kagan has done something questionable when it comes to his role as producer.
Now if you want to blame box office receipts as a reason for this move, you have somewhat of a case. The box office was down Oak's first week but the last two have been strong with houses averaging 97% and 98% capacity respectively. Also, Telecharge had been sending out ticket discounts to the show all week, you can't make a profit when you're giving out 40% discounts left and right.
And again, if the decision was financially motivated then fine, just say that. Don't say you're bumping an actor because a more famous actor wanted the role. By Kagan saying this it puts both actors in a tough spot which is unfair and completely unprofessional.
So in the end this kind of sucks. It sucks that an actor is getting bumped from a role so early in his run simply because a more famous actor mentioned he'd like to do it. It sucks that Patinkin will be painted by some as a villain in this when clearly he isn't. It sucks I'm questioning his return to Broadway after 17 years instead of celebrating it. It sucks that one of the few performers of color playing a lead role on Broadway is being replaced by a white actor.