Theater facing an unusual problem

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 Westside theater has filled the female cast, the males have proven elusive.

As of Friday, "Ragtime" had secured just three black male singers, and some at the playhouse had resorted to Facebook and word of mouth to try to coax the remaining trio. Given the script's requirements, this is one case where color makes all the 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's not surprising, in a sense, 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%, and OC Weekly ran a provocative package last year with the headline "Where the Black People At?"

Then again, race may not be the only issue involved in the Costa Mesa Playhouse's "Ragtime" woes. 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 SCR 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, SCR'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 3-D Theatricals has cast in the past came from Los Angeles. And another factor, he said, may make it harder to assemble an amateur cast than a professional one for "Ragtime."

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

One way or another, the Costa Mesa Playhouse will handle it. "Ragtime," which features a book by Terrence McNally and a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, will run for three nights and include a Saturday silent auction with prizes such as Laguna Playhouse tickets and memorabilia signed by Barbra Streisand and Billy Joel.

With rehearsals having started Monday and opening night set for Aug. 8, there isn't much time to fine-tune a production, but no worries — the actors will do without memorization and bring their scripts onstage.

Actress Nyquita Wilson, who performed in the theater's previous "Little Shop of Horrors," brought in one of the three male members so far for the Harlem Ensemble and has sought others through church and Facebook. If the ensemble stops at nine members, she said, the playhouse may simply position them at the front of the stage and have the cast's other vocalists flesh out the harmonies in back.

"The [main] ensemble would be upstage and out of the lighting, and then the Harlem cast, or the Harlem Ensemble, would be front downstage closer to the audience," Wilson said. "The light would be on them. So there wouldn't be visually so many people there, but we would have the ensemble in the back, some supporting men singing in the background, to help give the full effect."

And if any aspiring Paul Robesons are out there, Brown invites them to call (949) 650-5269 or email

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