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O.C. playhouse pleads for black actors as staging of 'Ragtime' nears

In a county with few African Americans, O.C. playhouse struggles to pull off 'Ragtime'

Wanted: three adult males with impressive vocal ability. Must love community theater and be willing to rehearse and appear in a show without monetary compensation. Historical savvy and ability to handle period pieces a plus.

P.S.: Must be black.

The Costa Mesa Playhouse, which plans to stage a concert version of the musical "Ragtime" at its annual fundraiser in early August, has hit a roadblock with those last three words. The show's creative team seeks a Harlem Ensemble of six black women and six black men, and while the nonprofit theater has filled the female cast, the male roles have been more difficult to fill.

Thus far, "Ragtime" has secured just three black male singers, and some at the playhouse have resorted to Facebook and word of mouth to try to coax the remaining trio. Given the script's requirements, this is a case where color makes a difference.

"We wouldn't try to pretend a white man or Hispanic man is black, you know," said Michael Dale Brown, the playhouse's board president.

It isn't the first time ethnic concerns have thwarted the theater's plans. Brown said that in the past, he has wanted to produce a number of shows with black-specific parts, including works by playwright August Wilson, but hasn't been able to due to lack of suitable talent.

Why the shortage?

It may not be surprising that black amateur actors can be hard to come by in Orange County. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the region has a black population of just 2.1%.

Then again, race may not be the only issue involved in the Costa Mesa Playhouse's "Ragtime" woes. The nearby South Coast Repertory staged "Death of a Salesman" last fall with a mostly black cast, and its recent productions have included Wilson's "Jitney" and "Fences." But South Coast Repertory employs Actors' Equity professionals and falls in the same radius as Los Angeles — meaning that it can cast residents of that area without having to provide housing for them.

By contrast, Brown's theater doesn't pay actors except in rare cases — and even then only a small stipend — which limits the field to those who are willing to invest a large amount of time in a production simply for the love of it. Add "black," "male" and "strong singing voice" to that criteria, and the possibilities may be slim around Costa Mesa.

"I'm sure that if I had to cast only in Orange County, I would be probably running into the same problem," said Joanne DeNaut, South Coast Repertory's casting director.

T.J. Dawson, the executive producer and artistic director of Anaheim-based 3-D Theatricals, has gotten ample turnouts of black performers for such shows as "Hairspray" and "Parade." The theater, which employs both Equity and non-Equity actors, also has "Ragtime" on its docket for the fall, and Dawson expects another packed audition in August.

He noted, though, that many of the black performers whom 3-D Theatricals has cast in the past came from Los Angeles. And for "Ragtime" in particular, an additional factor may make it harder to assemble an amateur cast than a professional one.

"You need pretty incredible vocalists to handle that score," Dawson said.

One way or another, the Costa Mesa Playhouse is counting on being able to fill the roles. "Ragtime” is set to run for three nights starting Aug. 8.

michael.miller@latimes.com

For Orange County news and features, follow @MichaelMillerHB on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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