On Friday, and less than 24 hours after announcing he would step in to play Pierre in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Mandy Patinkin bowed out. The reason? Some on social media cried racism, because the actor Patinkin would be replacing, Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, is black. How idiotic is this charge? Let me count the ways.
First of all, in case the names Natasha and Pierre weren’t enough of a giveaway, the play is an adaption of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Which, because it chronicles Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its impact on Tsarist society, is a book with a lot of white people in it. This is not to say that a black actor cannot portray Pierre: Onaodowan did so with verve, and his talent made the show better. The same is true for Denée Benton, the original Natasha, who is also black. But to argue that Pierre is a role that only a black actor could play is more than idiotic; it’s an assault on the very notion of history, and a call to replace its concrete specificities with the pieties of a steely ideology. Sadly, we’re seeing this sort of lunacy all too often these days, like the critic who condemned Dunkirk—a movie about British boys struggling to survive in World War II—for being insufficiently diverse, never mind that only a smattering of black soldiers served in the British army during the war.
The attack on Patinkin, however, is even more troubling if you consider a different history, the show’s own. The role of Pierre was originated on Broadway by Josh Groban, whose father was Jewish. Groban was then replaced for a brief while by Dave Malloy, the show’s composer, whose first full-time job was as a teacher in the JCC preschool in San Francisco. Then came Onaodowan. In other words, for a black actor to replace a half-Jewish actor on stage is progress; for another Jewish actor to then step into the same role is racism. There’s a name for that kind of bigoted thinking.
Those of us who’ve spent time observing the benighted corners of our world will immediately recognize the logic at play here: This is the language and the logic of regressive tribalism. Once a position is held by a member of my sect, I will never let it be occupied by another. You want a turn? You shut your mouth.
This kind of feverish fanaticism has no place in a society committed to truth, beauty, and all the other heights to which art ought to ascend. But don’t tell that to the theater crowd, especially when Jews are involved. The same folks who just a few weeks ago signed a petition to ban an Israeli show from Lincoln Center are now likely cheering for what you can bet some self-appointed intellectuals will soon call “a candid and difficult conversation about race” or some such nonsense. The reality is different, and it’s stark: The regressive left is fanning the flames of racial animosity, and the first in the line of fire, as per usual, are the Jews. Just another reason to save a few hundred dollars, ban Broadway, stay home, and watch TV instead.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.