Austin’s ZACH Theatre has been home to countless amazing productions over the years, created in part with the abilities of extremely talented actors who have captivated audiences through their dynamic portrayals of intense and intriguing characters. From Keith Contreras-McDonald playing Usnavi with In the Heights to Chanel as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, ZACH has been home to plenty of talent, and the tradition continues with Sunday in the Park with George as Cecil Washington Jr. steps into the role of the famous French painter.
Washington has made a name for himself through his talents on the stage, having played the likes of Bennie in the award-winning Broadway musical “Rent,” and taking on the larger-than-life task of portraying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in The Great Society alongside Steve Vinovich who played President Lyndon B. Johnson with the ZACH Theatre in Austin.
“I've been blessed with some really great roles as an actor,” Washington remarked. “That was my third or fourth time playing Martin Luther King jr., and each time it doesn't get any less intimidating to play such an iconic role. Not just a role, but an actual man — a figure — and especially for the Black community, it was intimidating but it's always an honor. Each time I approached it, I just wanted to pay homage and respect to the role and having met his daughter once after playing him, it's just always an honor and was a great role.”
Washington has also earned a few firsts in his career, having been the first to portray Sam Cooke in the world premiere of The Sam Cooke Story as well as being the first Black actor to be cast as Julian Marsh in 42nd Street, under the leadership of Keith Cromwell during the 2011-2012 season at the Red Mountain Theatre Company.
“When I was first told that, I guess I was a little younger and it didn't dawn on me how monumental [it was] for a man of my race,” he explained. “I know we’ve got into color blind casting in the 21st century, and I’m grateful for it, but that, again, was an honor and it started my career. It actually gave me hope to start going for different roles that I wouldn't have normally tried to approach or audition for, and I will forever be grateful for Keith Cromwell for putting me in a position to portray Julian Marsh.”
Along the way to landing such impactful roles, Washington has had run-ins with color-coded casting, but he managed to overcome the potential barrier by taking a more positive, confident approach which allowed him to face the odds and make a strong impression in the process.
“When I was in New York auditioned for a lot of things that, from the description of the role, I knew that I wasn't necessarily right for, but my idea was to be seen,” he elaborated. “And from me going in auditioning, knowing that clearly I'm not a 5-foot-7 man, and white, that they would say, ‘okay he's not right for this role, but I really do like what he did.’ So that puts me in their mental Rolodex, and that's how I got Les Mis. I went out and auditioned for a role in Atlanta. I knew that I wasn't in the description. They were looking for a Caucasian man, but I auditioned for something and they asked me if I sing and I said yes and that's how Les Mis came up.”
Despite the role race has played in theatre for so long, Washington is hopeful that a change is on the horizon, as colorblind casting becomes more commonplace, allowing for actors of color to be given the opportunity to be judged on their abilities rather than being excluded simply based on the color of their skin in relation to that of the character.
“There is still trepidation and there are a lot of theaters that are trying to push the envelope,” he said with a pensive tone. “I'm proud to be a part of those theaters and I’m blessed to have been able to get in the works with such theaters like ZACH Theater and Aurora Theatre and the Red Mountain Theatre. Of course, [race is] still an issue; there's still a lot of roles that anybody can play. It doesn't necessarily have to be what it was when it was originally written. There are some things that stay true to the race, but in this day any race can play any type of role if they have the talent and they have the know-how — why not? I believe everybody should be given an opportunity to tell the story because that's the most important part — you want to get the actor. Yes, race does still matter, but I believe that It's the actor who has the gifts to tell the story. That’s what counts the most.”
As he takes center stage ZACH Theatre, Washington will break the racial divide once again, taking up the titular role in their production of Sunday in the Park with George, a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical centered around French post-Impressionist painter Georges-Pierre Seurat as he discovers unimaginable possibilities while creating an enduring work of art.
“When Dave Steakley approached me about the idea of me playing George I didn't know anything about the musical and come to find out a lot of African American colleagues didn't know about the musical, well a majority of them didn't know,” Washington exclaimed. “But the ones that did know were like ‘oh my God, this is huge.’ I was like ‘oh is it? Okay well great!’ I'm always excited to approach roles that I’ve never heard of, and then to find out that the musical is extremely popular, so I said okay.”
This production has been demanding of Washington, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who has written music and lyrics for numerous Broadway classics including West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods.
“You always want to be challenged and it's not it's not an easy musical,” he added. “It's not impossible, of course, but I’ve never really never experienced Sondheim before, and Sunday in the Park with George is a huge Sondheim musical, and having not experienced the type of musical, when I started listening to the music I said ‘wow, this is beautiful and it's a lot.’ Being the first African American to do this role, I wanted to make sure not only that I respected all the actors that came before me to have done this, but I want to show that a man of any race can sing this style of music and tell this story just as good.”
To see the culmination of the hard work from Cecil Washington Jr. and the rest of the talented cast, order tickets to see Sunday in the Park with George on the ZACH Theatre website.
Nick Bailey is a forward thinking journalist with a well-rounded skill set including writing, design, and photography. Nick now resides in Austin, TX after earning a degree in Mass Communication with an emphasis on journalism from Texas A&M University—Commerce.