A Paler Shade of Moor

What Does It Mean When Only One African American Actor Shows Up to Your Casting Call for Othello?

A Paler Shade of Moor
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Last week, a Seattle director sent me an e-mail with concerns about an upcoming Shakespeare-in-the-park production of Othello. The star of the show, Johnny Patchamatla—a Boeing mechanic whose father was an Indian immigrant and whose mother is an enrolled Chippewa—is not African American. Which led her to question whether Seattle theater companies have sufficient relationships with actors of color.

"I write to you as a white woman with an extensive professional background in Shakespeare who is a member of a multi-racial family," she began, and went on to wonder whether the theater company, GreenStage, had been unwilling or unable to find an African American actor eager to play the part:

I recognize that in today's terms, a "Moor" can refer to a person of Middle Eastern descent. And Patrick Stewart performed his "photo negative" production of Othello in DC to great acclaim. But this is not a photo negative production. And Shakespeare is very specific about Othello's skin color. And Shakespeare (and Seattle) offer few enough opportunities for actors of color. In a city where Cornish and the University of Washington are graduating at minimum one or two professionally trained actors of color each year, and where recent productions by Lorraine Hansberry, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Lynn Nottage have been mounted successfully, I find it inconceivable that GreenStage was unable to find an actor of color to cast.

I forwarded her concerns (she asked to remain anonymous) to Othello director Teresa Thuman, who emphasized that Patchamatla is an actor of color and—more to the point—that only one African American showed up to the audition.

"We cast the strongest actor of color within our range of choices," she wrote. The trouble with finding a suitable actor of color who could also commit to the demanding summerlong gig, Thuman wrote, "was probably part of the reason it took 26 years for GreenStage to take on this particular play." Othello is the last of Shakespeare's entire canon to be performed by GreenStage.

What color is Othello? Shakespeare repeatedly describes his tragic hero as "black" on the outside—as opposed to his nemesis Iago's "blackest sins" on the inside. Over the centuries, scholars and critics have debated how dark the "noble Moor" should be. The word "Moor" is defined as someone of Northern African and/or Arabic descent. But that discussion seems academic in a theater world that continues to be white-dominated. As Patchamatla pointed out, "At the time the play was written, it would've been played by a white guy in blackface."

I described the quandary to director and University of Washington professor Valerie Curtis-Newton, who earned both praise and criticism for her all-black production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons at Intiman in 2011. Her first response: "What a can of worms!"

Curtis-Newton describes herself as "a fierce defender" of a director making strong and unpopular choices, "as long as she is willing to take the heat for the choice." But, she said, "people of color are not interchangeable." Casting an Othello without African roots means "the play will be different and should be re-thought from its foundation."

She also questioned what kind of outreach a theater company has done if it couldn't attract more actors of color to audition for such an iconic role. "I think that even small companies can get experienced black actors if they are willing to do the work," she said, and suggested that directors in that situation call other directors and theaters that regularly work with actors of color. "I can think of a few folks who might be interested in at least auditioning," she said, including a few of her current students.

Director Tyrone Brown, whose production of Passing Strange closed a couple of weeks ago at ACT, agreed that the normal channels for reaching out to African American artists don't always work. He was less concerned with the specific ethnicity of the actor cast and more concerned that only one black actor showed up. Brown, as well as actors such as Troy Johnson and Corey Spruill, point out that Theatre Puget Sound—a clearinghouse for theater information, including audition listings—doesn't have many African American actors in its database. That's partly due, Brown said, to a perception that there isn't much work for actors of color and that the few available jobs automatically go to a small handful of established artists. Others, he said, feel like they have to leave town to get serious work. Seattle is not particularly progressive when it comes to casting actors of color in white roles. There are some plays where race-specific casting matters—Athol Fugard's Master Harold... and the Boys, for instance—and some where it doesn't, as Peter Brook amply demonstrated when he cast an actor of Jamaican descent as Hamlet in 2000.

How does Brown put out his calls for auditions? "I do put it on TPS," he said. "I reach out to actors I've worked with before, and I use what some jokingly call my 'harem.' I recognize the role women play in the arts and say, 'Tell your boyfriend/husband/cousin/brother you're not going to talk to him unless he goes to audition for Tyrone. I get guys who sometimes come in and say, 'I don't even know why I'm here, but my girlfriend said I had to audition for some guy named Tyrone.'" That method has dug up actors who don't have much training but have great talent and instincts that he's willing to help coach—which not only leads him to budding artists, but widens the circle of friends and family members coming to shows who might get involved themselves. Curtis-Newton said she occasionally takes on "project" actors, but in general her work "requires folks with some chops."

Actor Troy Johnson has a slightly different method of pushing to expand opportunities for actors of color: He suggests that any actor sharing that goal calmly but plainly ask directors in the audition room whether they're looking for a diverse cast.

"Be direct, put a little pressure on the production itself," he said. "I'm older, so I'm not so shy. But be a bit of an activist. Keep pushing."

To Patchamatla, the concerns about his casting are ironic. He sees Othello as an archetypal outsider, and he has seen himself that way, too—particularly growing up in Kirkland, far from extended family or an East Indian community, and conspicuously darker than the other kids at school. "I'll never forget the first time a kid called me 'nigger,' because I didn't know what it meant," he said. "I was 7 years old." He went home to ask his dad—an aeronautics engineer—what that meant and "saw his face crumple a bit. He tried to explain racism to me. He never went too much into the challenges he experienced along the way, but I know that he had some hurdles of racism that caused him grief."

Patchamatla said because of his dark skin and large build, when he gets called in to audition for bigger theaters, it's always for a role specifically written for an actor of color—often to play a "menacing" Middle Eastern villain.

"I am not afforded consideration for roles that traditionally go to white actors," he said. "So it is really, truly ironic to me that here I am, in some way called out for not being dark enough... I choose to chuckle at it, because if I did take it personally, it would be hurtful." His laugh was rueful. "And chances are, by the end of the summer, I'll be much darker than I am now."

Still, he added, "I appreciate the conversation." Not only about some of the structural issues concerning race and casting in Seattle, but "to allow me to be more honest and dedicated in my portrayal of this iconic character as an outsider." recommended

Othello runs July 11 to August 16 at various local parks—find the full schedule at greenstage.org.


Comments (31) RSS

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Claypatch 1
Well written and very insightful. Thank you for writing this.
Posted by Claypatch on July 1, 2014 at 9:28 PM · Report this
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Johnny is a great actor, which is the most important thing about this casting decision. Looking forward to this show!
Posted by wormletter on July 2, 2014 at 9:21 AM · Report this

The third review down is from the last time Johnny Patchamatla played Othello (for Balagan Theatre directed by Ryan Higgins) in a production reviewed by the Stranger.
Posted by wagina on July 2, 2014 at 9:37 AM · Report this
Shakespeare would have thought Italians and Spaniards were as black as Othello or anyone from Subsaharan Africa as well..
Posted by HW3 on July 2, 2014 at 2:16 PM · Report this
I was available
Posted by Daylyfe on July 2, 2014 at 4:19 PM · Report this
Thank you, Brandon, for this article, and thank you to your editors who approved it for publication.

What I'm than to say, I'm not going to say about Teresa Thuman or anyone else named in the article.

Also, I'm white, with significant experience in a community of color.

With those provisos…

I know that directors will reach out to every actor of color they can think of, and put casting notices out wherever they think will get them the actors they need for a particular show.

But when actors of color are generally only cast for a role when it's a character of color, and there are so few roles for actors of color, and actors of color are typecast -- as Johnny said he's often cast as the Middle Eastern villain -- when these things happen over and over again, the actors of color I know are past tired of it.

Which means sometimes they won't audition for roles they might be right for, because they are tired of working with directors who don't understand what the issues are.

Sometimes, white directors need to do even more work to reach out to actors of color when they're casting a show. They may not realize where all the actors of color are, so it's easy for them to think they've reached out to everybody when in fact they haven't. (I'm not saying that for of Teresa, I'm sure she put her casting call out *everywhere*.)

Maybe Shakespeare didn't mean “of African descent” when he described Aaron as a “Moor.” Maybe he did.

Either way, I hope nobody dumps on Teresa or Johnny for his playing Othello.

And come see the show! It's Shakespeare. It's in the park. It's summertime!
Posted by Louisep on July 2, 2014 at 5:04 PM · Report this
I don't really think this is a "can of worms" moment. It's more like a lazy theatre company moment accidentally causing a controversy.
Posted by Eckstein on July 2, 2014 at 5:51 PM · Report this
Interesting and well written article. As someone who worked on Passing Strange though, I feel the need to point out it closed on Sunday; a few days ago not a few weeks ago.
Posted by passingstranger on July 2, 2014 at 8:37 PM · Report this
Crtr RdrQz 11
It's also possible that casting an actor who's already played the role puts you closer to a finished product for a challenging show. Not knocking Johnny, it's just that Shakespeare is the Olympics of acting and you almost never feel like there's enough rehearsal time.
Posted by Crtr RdrQz on July 2, 2014 at 9:44 PM · Report this
Shakespeare is universal. There's a reason why its lasted as long as it has. If Johnny can relate to Othello on a human level despite not being of African descent, who is anyone black, white and otherwise to judge. It doesn't take much research to know that Othello has been played by a plethora of actors from various ethnic backgrounds because simply put, Othello is a beautiful part. Its one of the most romantic and heart braking roles anyone could ever attempt. And PS, he's killing it in rehearals. The man was the best ACTOR for the part. Its a great talking point for Seattle at large however. Seattle theater is dominated by white actors, the dialogue, change andprogression lies within that, not greenstage casting the best man for a role, many wouldn't show up to audition for because of its staggering difficulty.
Posted by Kelton on July 2, 2014 at 10:03 PM · Report this
It's important to have this discussion because it's the first step towards moving forward (however slowly that might be). I appreciate the article and all the comments representing a variety of perspectives - each of which is valid - demonstrating why this is a complex conundrum.

No one would have raised the issue about Johnny, who is a terrific actor, being cast as Othello, if there were more actors of color on stage in general in Seattle. It's because there are so few opportunities for actors of color, that when a role that specifically calls for it opens up, there can be controversy around casting.

As progressive as Seattle likes to think of itself, it's interesting that when it comes to casting, as a whole, we're actually far behind many of the other major theatre cities. A number of years ago, a casting director was putting together a book for actors with chapters focused on different regions (NYC, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco and Seattle among a few others) and she mentioned to me that after doing all of her research, she was so surprised that Seattle was the most "behind" in considering and casting actors of color for roles not specifically written for actors of color.

And as our population continues to become more and more diverse, it's going to become more and more obvious when who we see on stage doesn't accurately reflect who we see in the world around us. But it will take commitment and a number of strategies over time by theatres, casting directors, directors and actors for the Seattle theatre scene to get there. Fortunately, there are some progressive people working on it and we will get there - slowly, but surely.
Posted by Kathy Hsieh on July 2, 2014 at 11:18 PM · Report this
This is some pretentious shit, though. So much white liberal guilt. So Seattle. Casting directors advertise in the most common places for actors to look for work. It's up to the actors to look there, regardless of their race, sex, ect. This isn't the first time a production needed actors of color who just didn't put in to audition. Far from it. Yes. Some are looking for too rigid a "type" and that sucks. It's your job as an actor to look.
Posted by LMNOP on July 3, 2014 at 12:17 AM · Report this
This is one of the most sensationalist, racist things I have read. Shame on the Stranger & the author for pulling this sensationalist crap! Who are any if you to judge 'how dark' Othello should be for any reason? What if the actor is dark-skinned but from Jamaica- not good enough because they are also not actually North African? What if a lighter skinned African actor read for the part & you could not instantly color them as 'black' with your judging ironic spectacles? Can Hamlet not be played by a black actor then because they are clearly not Danish as intended by the text? Ridiculous hypocrisy & pretentiousness. Let actors act.
This article seems a pathetic attempt to get attention and look like an advocate for 'people of color' when you 'other' us immediately just by making that distinction! Racist as hell in my opinion (& btw directors who do an "all black cast" just as a gimmick are not truly helping equality either- even if it's nice to see folks getting work)
How about instead, you celebrate Johnny's acting by just giving him a chance to play a role he wants to play and auditioned for? Looks like The Stranger gave him plenty of fuel to feel like an outsider in his own fucking town, with critics racially profiling him instead of looking at his talent. Maybe you can evaluate actors for their acting instead of their skin color?
If you're reading as someone actually in theater and want to see it cast different: Audition or direct then! Art should be free, despite troll critics like Brenden trying to subtly force the color pallete.
Posted by RookTakesPawn on July 3, 2014 at 11:00 AM · Report this

Brendan's reporting on a real phenomenon. He's not judging Othello or Johnny. He's not reporting on the production.

People judge Johnny, and Brendan's reporting on it.
Posted by Louisep on July 3, 2014 at 11:30 AM · Report this
Well. Looks like you certainly gave the actor fuel to feel like an outsider is his own home town, by racially profiling him instead of acknowledging his acting talent!

This is sensationalist, truly racist crap & the author and The Stranger should be ashamed at themselves. Who the hell are any of you to judge 'how dark' Othello should be? What if it were a light-skinned actual North-African actor- maybe they don't register as 'black' through your judging ironic spectacles? Can a dark-skinned Jamaican actor still not play the part because 'not African' enough? Would you make an issue then? On the flip side, can a dark-skinned actor not play Hamlet then because they are 'not Danish enough'? Racist hypocrisy. This article does the pretentious advocating for 'people of color' thing too- instantly grouping us as 'other' under a guise of 'concern'. That's not 'progressive', that's race-judging bullshit (btw an "all black cast" done as a gimmick is not truly helping equality either- even though it's nice to see folks getting work)

How about this: just let actors act!
Instead of pre-judging, maybe we can see the performance and give Johnny (& the rest of the cast) a chance to show acting talent. I will. If you're actually in theater, and don't like the casting: audition or direct & do better! That's how we progress and make a difference, not trolling and manufactured controversy like this poor judgmental racist hack.
Posted by RookTakesPawn on July 3, 2014 at 11:40 AM · Report this
@ 15 and 17: I think you might have misunderstood some points in the story. A few clarifications:

* Of course an actor of Jamaican descent can play Hamlet—one did, in Peter Brook's production I mentioned in the article, and he was celebrated for it. (I didn't see the production; it was a little before my time.)

* Of course Johnny can play Othello. But this production has brought up some complicated structural questions about how directors do and don't cast with race in mind, and whether or not they should. You might consider reading the article again and trying to see if you can find a place where I suggest Johnny can't or shouldn't play Othello, or a place where I "judge 'how dark' Othello should be."

* Nobody's talking about the quality of Johnny's performance because the show hasn't opened yet. (And there's a convention that critics don't evaluate performances before opening night.) Not every article about theater has to be a review.

Thanks for reading.
Posted by Brendan Kiley on July 3, 2014 at 12:41 PM · Report this
Oops, looks like I double posted in my frustration.

@16 I recognize there are issues, but I see this kind of sensationalized talking-point article as part of the problem, not a valuable exercise in change.

What struck me is the author calling out Johnny's race in the first paragraph, and then proceeding to question validity for Othello, and dive into racial-based casting.
I wonder, did actors/Johnny ask the author for this, or did the author decide it was juicy and contact him? Do you feel me? If this was a two-way interview with an actor on his process, showing Respect for the actor, and that topic came up, that might be different, but it sure seems like it's not. It seems it starts barreling into race sensation immediately & keeps at that, putting people on the spot with charged questions, Fox news style.

You know,actually that quote's "harem" line seems like it could spark a whole Stranger freakout on its own, as a gender issues rant. But would it be productive or was their really negative intent there? Not likely.

If the author had integrity to do something positive: he could focus on pointing out where folks can audition for these companies and see these plays, and encourage diversity to get involved!
Posted by RookTakesPawn on July 3, 2014 at 1:04 PM · Report this
Something worth mentioning is that Greenstage has known for at least one, and closer to two years, that the summer of 2014 they would be producing Othello, and requiring an actor of color in the leading role. Plenty of time to start watching actors around town, scoping out the talent coming out of the PATP, and generally making connections. I was part of a (small company) opera production that required an African-American tenor in a major role. After beating the bushes hard, the producers eventually brought in a singer from the East coast. Because it was crucial to the opera's thematic integrity that those lines were sung by an African American. And a tenor. Casting an Asian American tenor or another singer of color wouldn't have been okay ethically or thematically. If you aren't going to take them time to find an actor who fits the specs for your play OR reimagine the play in a way that addresses the fact that this Othello is Asian, or Native American, or Latino, or whatever, then it does seem like there's some due diligence missing. I haven't seen Johnny Pachamatla act, so this in no way suggests he's not capable of the role. But if only one African American actor shows up for any audition, let alone for Othello, that should probably be a signal that your outreach isn't as comprehensive as you think it was, and maybe you should start making some phone calls. Even if it means starting rehearsals without your lead. Or not completing the canon this year.
Posted by theatregeek on July 3, 2014 at 1:22 PM · Report this

Yes, it's a charged discussion, and fraught with all kinds of potential unpleasantness.

But Brendan was reporting on an e-mail he got from a director about why Greenstage didn't cast an African-American actor in the role of Othello. So, clearly he led the story talking about the issue of the story.
Posted by Louisep on July 3, 2014 at 2:16 PM · Report this

Yay Kathy! I'm glad you posted.
Posted by Louisep on July 3, 2014 at 2:17 PM · Report this
Ok, not near as offensive (to me) as I thought it would be going in. What's the point we should takeaway though? Othello is not always totes black (gasp!)? P.O.C. actors should audition more in Seattle? Maybe just stirring the bees' nest for reactions like above? "concerned director", can you chime in?

@18 & 17 etc. I don't see it as "judging" so much, but is is titled "A Paler Shade of Moor", so its def. trying to wave a flag on skin color there, let's be fair...I mean, honest!

Also not sure why you felt a need to really spell out what race that Johnny guy is at all, since that should not matter, but he seems cool. I mean, I don't see race, but by spelling it out so much, I suspect you are maybe a white dude (j/k, but it seems borderline discriminating to do that no matter what color you are & it seems like you're saying that's potentially an issue.. so maybe be careful what you use race cards for too!)
Posted by Apotheosis on July 3, 2014 at 3:24 PM · Report this
@21 & @16 you are totally Brendan's friend IRL huh? ;)
Posted by Apotheosis on July 3, 2014 at 3:28 PM · Report this
I live outside Seattle so the only local theater I attend regularly is Seattle Shakespeare Co. Their productions are almost always diverse in their casting and they seem to have no problem attracting talent. Sometimes color-blind casting seems discordant and distracting but more often it is a complete non-issue and blends seamlessly. Depends on the role, the actor and what the stage director wants to say with the production. You can certainly find a multiplicity of meanings in the text. Once SSC starts staging all-white productions I will believe this is a real issue and not a tempest in a teapot.
Posted by kallipugos on July 3, 2014 at 3:35 PM · Report this
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Here's your actor, straight from the halls of The Stranger's very own offices:

Posted by Othello Station on July 3, 2014 at 3:59 PM · Report this
I don't know anything about theater, but I am an academic specializing in Near Eastern studies (I also stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night). And the term "Moor"/"Moorish" has historically referred to inhabitants of the Maghreb, or North Africa to the west of Egypt.

Further -- and this shows how fluid and culturally constructed our understanding of "race" can be -- the term "black" was historically used by British people to refer to *any* group of people who were conspicuously darker than what they deemed to be "white." For example, British colonists routinely referred to their Indian subjects (the ancestors of the actor who ended up being cast in the role) as "black."

So, if I were trying for "authentic" casting of a character who a sixteenth century British playwright had described as both "Moorish" and "black," I would look for someone who appeared to be of North African descent. In my experience, many Indians can "pass" as North African, while very few people of Sub-Saharan African descent can do so.

In short, despite all the controversy, the theater got the casting "right," from a historical point of view.

Posted by Bluejay Banana on July 4, 2014 at 5:08 AM · Report this
Next time interview the Sea Hawks.
Posted by orange cat on July 7, 2014 at 11:00 AM · Report this
Seattle is 70% white, yet the scene driving Seattle theatre is 95% white and the key players in LORT theatre are almost 100% white. That's not a coincidence.
Posted by El Steven http://misterstevengomez.com on July 17, 2014 at 10:30 AM · Report this
biffp 31
The question isn't whether the theater company putting on this free production should have spent more time and effort trying to cast someone more to the liking of this white writer and his anonymous director's liking. The question is whether the writer of this piece should have spent more time and effort interviewing people of color to determine whether this was a legitimate problem. As non-anonymous sources in the industry have suggested, the writer has missed the mark.

Posted by biffp on July 18, 2014 at 3:43 PM · Report this

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