Don Quixote was black. Jesus Christ and Belle were both Asian.
While most roles are performed by white actors at Village Theatre, throughout the years, performers of color have created some memorable roles here, too.
Take Jennifer Paz for example. One may remember her vivid yellow princess dress and spirited portrayal of Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” her angelic vocals as Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar” or the dramatic portrayal and blonde hair as Eva Perón in “Evita.”
While her Filipina heritage gives Paz an edge for ethnic roles, it hasn’t limited her to Miss Saigon, either.
With a history of both authentic and non-traditional casting at Village Theatre, executive producer Robb Hunt says he looks for opportunities to bring in multicultural casts.
As Hunt says, it’s not about affirmative action for the stage. It’s about opening doors to the best talent – whatever skin color he or she may have.
Hunt points to the theater’s recent production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” as an example, where two actors alternated the roles of Jesus/Judas.
He said it didn’t make a difference that one actor was white and the other was Asian, they were each brilliant because of how they performed and the unique portrayal they brought to the roles, not because of physical appearance or features.
Sometimes though, race can’t be ignored when casting a production.
“In a show like ‘The King and I’ we try to create opportunities for Asian actors,” Hunt said.
Similarly, race and ethnicity play an important role in Village Theatre’s next show: an original musical developed in the Village Originals program called “Take Me America,” Sept. 14 – Nov. 20. Audiences will see a gritty, rock n’ roll tale of seven desperate refugees seeking political asylum in the United States – all of whom, are played by actors of color.
The characters in the musical are people from China, Sudan, Algeria, Haiti and El Salvador.
“One thing I’m really pleased about is writing a piece that, in diversity terms, covers the rainbow. Because that’s what you see when you look at the cast,” said Bill Nabel, a former Broadway performer and the writer and lyricist behind “Take Me America.”
Inspired by true stories and based on the documentary “Well Founded Fear,” the musical depicts the hardships the refugees go through and decisions made by the U.S. officials who determine their fate.
The distinction between asylum and regular immigration is that people seeking asylum must prove they have a well-founded fear of persecution
“It’s not a political story,” said Nabel of this, the first musical he wrote to be developed into a full-scale production. “It’s about the heart of the people coming here. How do you live with the decisions you make? What do you leave behind in your home country? It shows a great deal of humanity and makes you re-define what it means to be American.”
Ben Gonio, who plays Chinese refugee, Wu Xiao, gave Nabel some feedback on being cast in a production with diversity.
“He told me how happy he was to be in a show where he finally doesn’t have to play against his ethnicity,” Nabel said.
For tickets and more information, go to http://villagetheatre.org/ or call (425) 392-2202. Village Theatre is located at 303 Front St. N., Issaquah.