Theater watchers are worried about future of a critically acclaimed musical The Great Comet of 1812 after uproar over a casting decision—apparently made with financial concerns in mind—raised questions about the show's and Broadway's commitment to diversity. NY Post theater columnist Michael Riedel warned, "A lot of good comes from a Broadway show that runs. Nothing comes from one that closes."

And Dave Quinn, theater reporter for NBC New Yorker, tweeted, "I didn't agree with how it was handled but no one—not Mandy, not Oak, not the producers—deserved the outrageous claims sent their way."

"What will happen now if one of the most diverse shows on Broadway closes?" Quinn added. "Will those same people speak up? Will they feel responsible?"

Last week, producers for the show announced that Broadway legend Mandy Patinkin would be stepping into the lead male role of Pierre for three weeks, starting mid-August. However, the guest casting decision meant that Okieriete Onaodowan, a rising star who recently starred in Hamilton, would have to cut short his time as Pierre. Some Broadway fans and actors were aghast, accusing the show of racism on social media.

Patinkin, who didn't realize the circumstances of how his casting was secured, then dropped out. "My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor," he said. "I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show."

The show's creator, Dave Malloy, apologized for the mess, but explained, "the show was in desperate shape; sales after ingrid [Michaelson] leaving Aug 13 were catastrophically low. show would have closed. it’s apparently a weird show. turns out it needs a name to sell it. mandy is a beautiful legend. had no idea. he didn’t ask to out oak, the show asked him to come asap because we were on brink of closing."

Azudi Onyejekwe, an actor in The Great Comet, posted a lengthy, eloquent essay on Facebook and Twitter with his thoughts about the complicated situation. He defended Malloy and the show's director Rachel Chavkin as "two of the truest white allies that I've ever met... I have sen very few white people as committed to a through, nuanced, pragmatic approach to diversity," but also said, "Mistakes were clearly made. Really bad mistakes. On all sides. My brother in art Oak, did not deserve to be treated how he was treated. This statement is by NO means an attack on the responses to the very obvious problematic optics of replacing a young, incredibly talented black actor for an older white legend (who was assumed to, but truly had no part in this) to boost ticket sales in the manner that it was done."

Onyejekwe also criticized the rush to judgement via Twitter: "The pitchfork mentality of society conjoined with the proliferation of social media continually runs the danger of cutting off true dialogue- and manifests itself into an attackfest where listening to contrary viewpoints is shoved out the window -which is not useful."

It took me a while to formulate and reflect on these thoughts, but I want to make a couple of things clear.

As a man who has devoted a great amount of my life to the study of critical race theory- who has an honors degree from NYU in the study of the African diaspora- who continues to fight each and every day in the triple consciousness of Black, African and American ... I can tell you unequivocally that Rachel Chavkin and Dave Malloy are two of the truest white allies that I've ever met. Now this is not about perpetuating a white savior trope/falling into that narrative because a white savior does not exist... and like all people- they are not perfect (as they would readily admit). But in my 4 and a half years of friendship with both of these humans, I have seen very few white people as committed to a thorough, nuanced, pragmatic approach to diversity... as committed to having open and honest dialogues on issues that the privilege afforded to them by their white skin allows them to overlook... I have seen them hold themselves accountable in their past failings, I have seen them navigate the real truth of how can we maintain/promote true diversity in the face of a system literally predicated on suppressing that very same diversity.

Mistakes were clearly made. Really bad mistakes. On all sides. My brother in art Oak, did not deserve to be treated how he was treated. This statement is by NO means an attack on the responses to the very obvious problematic optics of replacing a young, incredibly talented black actor for an older white legend (who was assumed to, but truly had no part in this) to boost ticket sales in the manner that it was done. Race is always relevant. Especially when it comes to representation. We do not live in a colorblind society. Although it is a social construct, it has very real implications. Anyone who says otherwise is living in ignorant bliss.
However, if we truly want to dismantle the system and put truth to power - we must do it in a nuanced, critically thought through way that examines the superstructures that allow oppression to thrive. In this context, if your response for this does not include a critique/indictment on capitalism ... then what indeed are you thoroughly critiquing in a real way at the end of the day? In producing and sustaining a Broadway show, the bottom line is the dollar, or your show eventually closes.

The pitchfork mentality of society conjoined with the proliferation of social media continually runs the danger of cutting off true dialogue- and manifests itself into an attackfest where listening to contrary viewpoints is shoved out the window -which is not useful. In our political discourse, this is true of all sides of the coin. My whole life, I've been all about speaking truth to power, but in order to do that you must understand the language of your oppression. I've studied and continue to study the many progressive titans of our history ... from MLK to Stokely to Malcolm to Du Bois to Ida B Wells, Mary Church Terrell to E. C. Stanton to global icons like Mandela, Gandhi and many more... these champions in history changed the status quo by shouting truth to power AND by having a thorough, nuanced analysis of what the superstructures of power were and how to dismantle it from its root.

Please do not be hoodwinked, do not be bamboozled into scapegoating one show to be the main representation of Broadway's very real diversity problem. A show that employs (on stage alone) 15 actors of color, a show that (comparatively speaking) is among the upper echelon if not the most diverse musical on Broadway. I'm not saying it doesn't have its flaws when it comes to diversity, I personally have had multiple open, fruitful convos with Rachel and Dave about my perception of how we have failed in some regards when it comes to the opportunity for an even more diverse show. And they have always welcomed it, listened, problematized. Took accountability.

At the end of the day, I take pride in the artistic achievement that God has blessed me to have been apart of for the past 4 and a half years. And once again, this statement is in no way saying that huge mistakes were not made, because they were. The situation was unfair to all. But my call is for nuance, layered critical thinking, putting language to root causes and asking questions to hear answers not to just blitz with no hope of a dialogue.

Peace, Love and God bless you all.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I am more than happy to engage in a meaningful way privately.

-Azudi

On Saturday afternoon, Onaodowan shared Onyejekwe's essay, Tweeting, "Well spoken, well said. I couldn't have phrased it better. Thank you for your words my brother."

Josh Groban, who originated the role of Pierre for Broadway, tweeted a link to Malloy's apology, adding "This thread sums it up. Just so sad for cast, crew, creators, oak and mandy. all deserve our love. This was handled poorly plain and simple." He also shared Time Out's theater critic's tweet: "So: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is one of Broadway's best shows and now would be a good time to see it."

Onaodowan will be playing Pierre through August 13.