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