By Douglas Feiden
The Bay Street Theater says “bullying” and “personal attacks” online and in social media against its actors and creative team led to the cancellation of a special, free world-premiere concert reading of “The Prince of Egypt” that had been scheduled for August 13 in Mashashimuet Park.
Casting for the one-night event, a partnership with DreamWorks Theatricals in which the in-development script and music would have been performed, had triggered a firestorm of online criticism that the actors were not sufficiently diverse for a production that relates the Biblical saga of Moses.
In an open letter dated July 29 and addressed to the “Bay Street Community,” Scott Schwartz, the theater’s artistic director, said the creative team recognizes the significance of the casting issue and “appreciates the constructive feedback” offered from friends and colleagues in the theatrical community.
“But there were also personal attacks and comments online and in social media against our actors and creative team that were unproductive,” he wrote.
Mr. Schwartz called that the “specific reason” for the cancellation of the high-profile event. It would have been the first public presentation of both the script and the musical score for the emerging stage adaptation of the 1998 animated film, also called “The Prince of Egypt,” which was a DreamWorks blockbuster.
“The team feels strongly that social media harassment and bullying of artists is not acceptable, nor is it a positive or constructive way to continue this important discussion about diversity and racial authenticity in casting,” Mr. Schwartz wrote.
“The talented actors who were to be involved in this concert were being paid very little and were only committed to helping develop this show for one night, for free, in our local park. The creative and producing team certainly could not ask them to endure online harassment for a one-night concert reading.”
In an earlier online statement, Mr. Schwartz had noted that five of 15 actors in the cast were people of color, refuting some posters who claimed the performers were “all-white,” but angering others who accused Bay Street and DreamWorks of “tokenism.”
Some of the allegedly “bullying” posts appear to have been removed from Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets.
The general critique, which popped up on several posts, was that the producers had engaged in “whitewashing.” That’s the term for a long-standing practice in Hollywood, on Broadway and in regional theater of using white actors, not minorities, to portray blacks, Asians, Mexicans and Native Americans in films, plays and musicals.
Though discredited, whitewashing has hardly been abandoned, and it’s become a flashpoint at recent Academy Award presentations.
Typical of the comments was one from Denée Benton, a black Broadway actress who is about to star in “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” She took to Twitter to lament, “Yet ANOTHER missed opportunity to represent our colorful world.”
And Tony award-winner Cynthia Erivo, whose background is Nigerian, noted, “Piece set in ancient EGYPT, i.e. AFRICA where people darker than I resided. That is my point.”
Some commenters took to Bay Street’s Facebook page to skewer Mr. Schwartz’s letter: “So, you are cancelling the reading not because of the legitimate issues raised, but because you felt insulted,” wrote Dan Jones, who describes himself as a “ticket-ripper” at a unnamed theater. “Was this meant to sound like high ground?”
Good news did come out of the cancellation. A free concert of songs from Bay Street’s “My Fair Lady,” featuring an audience sing-along, will be performed at Mashashimuet Park on August 13 instead.