The Misguided Musings of Okieriete Onaodowan


The original title of this piece was going to be "Please Oak, STFU", but I thought that might come off as a bit too aggressive and mean. But don't let my new title lessen how angry and disappointed I am with the Okieriete "Oak" Onaodowan's recent comments he made at a Forbes event in Boston. 

I'm not a Broadway performer, never have been. So I'm not sure of the unwritten rules performers have among themselves. But regardless, Oak broke some with me. The first being, don't throw dirt on a previous production by using it as an example of what's wrong when in reality, they did it right. 

The article states the following, 

"I played Pierre, a white Russian aristocrat, and my co-lead was Denée Benton," said Onaodowan, the child of Nigerian immigrants, of his role in The Great Comet. "Two black leads playing not black people--it was an important moment for the Broadway community to say diversity is possible and it's here."

But, he added, there is more to diversity than just existing, it must be nurtured--and that's where The Great Comet failed.

"You have to cultivate diversity for it to work, and I feel the Great Comet didn't take the time to cultivate it. They didn't want to invest in it," he said. "That's how diversity becomes a gimmick or device, when it is introduced but not supported."

Okay, Okay, Okay, here's the deal, you can criticize The Great Comet and its creative team for a lot of things, but where you can't is saying that they didn't "cultivate" diversity. Especially not when it was one of the more diversely cast shows in recent years. Not when it had only women of color portray its lead female role throughout its entire existence. Not when it was the recipient of AEA's Extraordinary Excellence in Diversity on Broadway Award, which was given to them based on promoting the union's founding principles of diversity, inclusion, non-traditional casting, and equal opportunity for all who work in the theater. 

When news hit that Oak was being replaced, I stated that while the racial optics weren't good, I never thought it was a racially motivated decision. And when looking at the combination of box office losses, backstage issues and terrible business practices, the show's fate was decided before Many Patinkin even considered coming on board. 

If Oak said that producers didn't take the time to invest in him, personally, that's fine. I would've disagreed and said "Really dude?!?!?" but I would have at least understood his point. But don't go ringing the racist alarm when, in reality, the show had been celebrating diversity all long. 

And what kills me is that Oak gets it right with some of his other comments he makes in the piece, 

"Broadway needs to let go of any fear that it won't succeed and take a knee," he said, adding that just like Colin Kaepernick did, artists must also use their platforms as an opportunity to speak out for the greater good. "There's this rhetoric about being grateful and happy that you're getting paid for your art. We are told to put our own stuff aside, but doesn't everyone have a job they should just shut up and do? Shouldn't the President just shut up and lead and stop telling us how he feels?"

Oak makes a strong point here. He is right that there is a pressure within the industry to stay silent on certain issues or risk being hirable. But throwing The Great Comet under the proverbial bus in the way he did almost undermines his entire point.

I have written many times on here that Broadway needs to take a serious look in the mirror when it comes to casting equality and thankfully, the tide is starting to change. However, for those voicing these opinions, we need to be consistent and we need to stick the landings. Misguided statements and mistargeted attacks like these only hurt the cause, not help it. And what frustrates me most is that Oak knows this.

Oak finished by saying this, 

"When you have a platform and people listen, it's very important what you chose to say."

Yep, I couldn't agree more. 

Photo: Chad Batka