Even as they sent a press release announcing "Smokey Joe's Cafe," the people behind the upcoming Lyric Arts musical knew there was a problem with the cast.
"After auditions and callbacks, I had a gut feeling we didn't have enough [Black, Indigenous people of color] representation," director Vanessa Brooke Agnes said.
"When Vanessa and I were laying out headshots and making final decisions, we both felt, 'Wow, I wish we had more diversity,' but neither of us said it," recalled Laura Tahja Johnson, Lyric Arts' executive and artistic director, who had scheduled a second round of auditions in hopes of being more inclusive.
When the cast was announced on Facebook, with three people of color among 12 performers, commenters questioned the lack of diversity. White actors in the show expressed doubts about singing tunes popularized by Black artists such as Ben E. King and the Coasters.
The reasons for the less-diverse-than-hoped cast were complicated but the solution was not.
"We laid it out: 'Here's what happened. Thank you for letting us know. We need to do better.' We decided we would increase the number of Black actors in the cast by three to five and, if we couldn't, we would select a different show," said Johnson. "We went to work, made connections, posted again for auditions and got some amazing new cast members."
As a result, "Smokey Joe's Cafe" will open April 8 with 15 actors, including seven people of color.
Where things went wrong
"Diversity has always been a challenge for Lyric Arts," said Johnson, who cites the Anoka location, low stipends (until recently, $15 per performance) and competition from other theaters as factors.
Theater Latté Da's "Jelly's Last Jam" and Artistry's "Memphis" needed Black singer/actors in the same time frame, offering higher pay. Lyric Arts has been a talent "incubator," getting performers early before they graduate to better-paying venues — Reese Britts, who's playing the title role in "Jelly," did "Frankenstein" and "Rent" at Lyric Arts. So it's always hunting for new talent.
"We went into casting, knowing it was going to be a challenge. And we saw very few auditioners of color," Johnson said.
Even after actors were chosen, two ended up leaving "Smokey Joe" for other opportunities.
Johnson said one lesson of the experience is that audition ads aren't enough outreach for Lyric Arts.
All five performers added in the third auditions are Black. One, Marley Ritchie, got her start at age 15 in Lyric Arts' 2013 "Hairspray." She wasn't available for the first "Smokey Joe" auditions.
Chris Owusu, also cast in the final round, didn't hear about them until Agnes posted an Instagram call for Black talent. Knowing he was joining a show where actors from the initial cast would lose solos to newcomers, Owusu had qualms but was quickly reassured.
"Everyone was on the same page," said Owusu. "The new actors weren't looked at like, 'Why are you here?' It was more, "We're so glad you're here. This is what we wanted all along.'"
Before rehearsals started on Feb. 22, Ritchie said, newcomers were welcomed into a group text, where it was clear that eagerness to diversify the company began long ago.
Who tells this story?
The issue of representation in "Smokey Joe" is more nuanced than, say, whether it's cool to cast a white actor as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (that's a "no"). Inspired by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller pop songs such as "On Broadway" and "Kansas City," it's a revue, with very little story and no overt politics. Its Broadway production ran from 1995 to 2000 without complaints about white singers tackling songs popularized by Black performers. But conversation has shifted since then, as organizations such as We See You White American Theater brought attention to historical trauma and inequity.
Ritchie sometimes finds herself asking, "Do you only want me for the one Black show, and not for the other shows that are typically white? But I do see a lot of companies trying to change that, which is amazing. I finally see I don't have to work twice as hard to get that typically white role."
Reaching out specifically to Black actors to complete the "Smokey Joe" cast could have been seen as problematic. Even knowing it was the right call, Johnson said it felt odd to have a sort of quota. But, although Ritchie has felt tokenized in other shows, that was not the case with "Smokey Joe" because administrators were so open.
"It felt like, 'You guys saw what the issue was. You're correcting it. And that's lovely,'" said Ritchie.
She got similar feedback from the original cast: "They said it feels so much better now for the songs to be sung by the people they were always supposed to be sung by."
There's still work to do. To make Lyric Arts more attractive, the theater doubled stipends to $30 per performance, but Johnson wants to increase that. And she has other ideas about making the venue more welcoming, including outreach to more directors of color such as Agnes, who is Black.
Meanwhile, everyone seems to agree that the show, which Johnson calls "joyful and fun," has become what it was supposed to be.
"When we were in the middle of some of the backlash, I would say I was a little worse for wear just because I do pride myself on centering the voices of people who have been marginalized," said Agnes, whose company, Dark Muse, amplifies "queer and BIPOC" storytellers.
As painful and awkward as the "journey" through three sets of auditions was, she always thought it was worthwhile.
"I'm really happy we landed where we are," the director said. "It was a learning experience, but I think I needed to go through this just as much as Lyric Arts."