Features Jul 2, 2014 at 4:00 am

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


Well written and very insightful. Thank you for writing this.
Johnny is a great actor, which is the most important thing about this casting decision. Looking forward to this show!

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.
Shakespeare would have thought Italians and Spaniards were as black as Othello or anyone from Subsaharan Africa as well..
I was available
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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.
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.
@ 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.
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!
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.

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.

Yay Kathy! I'm glad you posted.
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!)
@21 & @16 you are totally Brendan's friend IRL huh? ;)
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.
Here's your actor, straight from the halls of The Stranger's very own offices:

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.

Next time interview the Sea Hawks.
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.
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.


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