This week's article about race and casting in Seattle was kicked off last week, when a local director sent me an email asking why an upcoming production of Othello didn't star an African American actor.
The answer to that question turned out to be very complicated.
Talking to people, from the actor playing Othello (Johnny Patchamatla, who says his life experiences as, in his words, a "dark-skinned outsider" give him a deep well to draw from to play that part) to the director of the production to African American actors and directors around town revealed some knotty currents in Seattle's theater scene. As director Valerie Curtis-Newton replied when I asked her for her thoughts: "Brendan, what a can of worms!"
Some of those currents include: Too few roles to keep actors of color regularly working, the perception that the few jobs keep going to the same handful of actors, lack of arts exposure in public schools, Seattle not being very creative or progressive about casting actors of color in traditionally white roles (Master Harold... and the Boys, by Athol Fugard depends more heavily on color-specific casting to make sense, for example, than Hamlet), directors not always knowing how to reach actors of color, and so on.
One tidbit that didn't make it into the article: During our interview, actor Troy Johnson said, "my Asian actor friends say Asians have it even worse than blacks do as far as getting cast in nontraditional roles. Johnny [Patchamatla] is part Indian? Well, what do you say to that? Maybe he feels like, As an Indian American I always get cast in some stereotypical part and here's a chance to showcase my talents."
In fact, Patchamatla said during our interview that because of his dark skin and large build, when he gets called in to audition for roles it's 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."
Johnson also pointed me to this New York Times article from 2012 about how infrequently Asian American actors get cast in New York:
Over the past five theater seasons Asian-American actors were cast in 2 percent of the roles in Broadway and major Off Broadway productions, while 80 percent of the roles went to white performers, 13 percent to black actors, and 4 percent to Hispanic artists, according to data compiled by an advocacy group for Asian-American performers. Over those seasons, 2006-07 to 2010-11, Asian-Americans were found to be the only minority group whose share of New York acting roles declined slightly, and they were also the least likely to be chosen for characters that would traditionally be played by white actors.
When I mentioned that article to Patchamatla—whose father was from India and whose mother is an enrolled Chippewa—he noted that the statistics didn't even include actors of Native American heritage like himself.
In the comments thread, Seattle director Kathy Hsieh nails the one constant I heard from everyone I talked to for the article:
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.
If you're curious to see the show that has inspired this discussion, it opens next Friday at Volunteer Park before beginning its tour throughout Seattle's parks. See full details over at GreenStage's website.