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Richard Riaz Yoder in Lyric’s SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN 2019

People go to the theatre for many reasons: to laugh, to escape, to learn, to be entertained. Some might say the best plays and musicals do all of these at the same time. The theatre is often a great place to experience human stories that have been otherwise overlooked or left out of consideration. Richard Riaz Yoder, starring as Cosmo Brown in Lyric’s production of Singin’ in the Rain, feels connected to these undervalued stories and uses his gifts to bring them alive for audiences. 

This summer isn’t the first time Richard has put on Cosmo Brown’s tap shoes. He first played the role in 2016 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois. The character of Cosmo is conventionally played by Caucasian actors. Richard is multiracial, so even auditioning for the part took a leap of faith. “I knew that it would be something good for me. So I thought, I’m going to go and try to kill it at the audition. And that’s all that you can do,” he remarked.

When Richard went in for the callback, “There were people of all different ethnicities, but the majority were white men.” After an extensive callback, Richard was offered the role. He remembers, “I was dumbfounded. Shuffle Along had just closed, and I only had two weeks to get ready for the audition. I felt honored and thankful. There aren’t many leading roles written specifically for African Americans that tap dance. I don’t know any for men. That’s one of the things that made playing Cosmo so special for me.”

A New Kind of Cosmo

One of the great things about theatre is that with each new production, actors get the chance to bring something new to the stage. “I was so nervous that first time doing it, thinking ‘I have to be a funny straight white male.’ It killed my soul a little bit. It was taking away all of my natural humor–everything that made me comfortable in my skin. And so this time, forget it. I’m going to be myself. And we’re going to have fun.”

One of Cosmo’s signature songs in Singin’ in the Rain is “Make ‘Em Laugh,” and Richard is getting ready to do just that. “Comedy is hard because it changes depending on your audience, how people are feeling that day and your connection with everybody else on the stage. It has to be placed in realism but also heightened because we’re at the Civic Center. Most Broadway theaters aren’t as big as the Civic Center. You have to be 100% confident in your skin and with your skills to give out enough energy to fill the space.” 

Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, is a recent Broadway musical with a score by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and a book by George C. Wolfe, based on the original libretto of the 1921 musical revue of the same name. The story focuses on the challenges of mounting the original production and its effect on African American actors and race relations. The original Broadway production starred Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Billy Porter. Richard Riaz Yoder was a member of the ensemble. 

Pizza, Beer, & Audra McDonald

Richard recalls the show’s star, Audra McDonald, very fondly, but complains “It drives me crazy when people say she is one of the best black actors actresses out there. No, that’s incorrect. She is one of the best actresses alive, period.  She’s a very in-charge kind of person. In this business, as an African American woman, you need a strong personality to make it. And I think she’s just wonderful.”

“One day during rehearsal, we were having such a rough time. Putting the tech with the show together was crazy. At last minute, there was an announcement of a you’re-not-gonna-be-able-to-have-your-dinner-break kind of thing. Audra got fried chicken, pizza, and beer for everybody at the theater. It was waiting for us right after. It was such a simple thing for her to do, but it meant the world to us,” he pointed out.

The show ran on Broadway for 38 previews and 100 regular performances. “It was so important, especially for people of color to see,” Richard said. “To see so many different shades of African American people on stage. They made sure that they had everybody, every tone, every kind of mixture that you could think of. It was one of the most diverse casts that have been onstage in a very long time.”

The theatre world has often been a safe haven for marginalized identity groups, but it is not a perfect place. Certain types of material are still few and far between. “Producers should search for these people that might have unique stories to tell, that can bring something different to the table. Because if it’s not produced, then nobody will hear it,” Richard explained. “People of different ethnicities need to be encouraged to tell their story, whatever it is, and how they want to tell it. They need to know ‘Hey, there is a spot for you in this world.’

“A lot of people have grumbled in the past couple of years about how everything in the theatre is ethnic now. People have even told me they think I get roles simply because I’m ethnic. And it really bothers me. There are so many roles out there for Caucasian men. Why is the thought that me getting one role so terrible? It shows how, unfortunately, some people can take ownership of something that wasn’t theirs to begin with.” 

Coming to Oklahoma

Choosing a career in the arts isn’t always the first choice for parents of would-be performers. Show business is competitive and unpredictable, so parents sometimes discourage their children from going into arts-related fields. For Richard, this wasn’t the case. “When I was in high school in St. Louis, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for college. So I told my mother that I’d be a lawyer. They make a lot of money, right? She looked at me and asked, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ My dad and mom were so supportive–they would have sent me to law school if I really wanted.”

Richard’s mother walked him through the life of being a lawyer, the education and the workload, then asked him, “What would you want to do if you did not have to earn money?”

Richard Riaz Yoder in Lyric’s SWING 2008 • Photo by Wendy Mutz Photography

Richard answered, “That’s easy. I’d want to perform.” So his mother helped him set up auditions for 12 different schools. In the end, he was accepted to Oklahoma City University as a Dance Performance major. During his time in OKC, he performed for Lyric in several shows, including Swing and Beauty and the Beast

While Richard has been on Broadway in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, On the Twentieth Century, Shuffle Along, and Hello Dolly!, he’s excited to return to Oklahoma. The last time he appeared on the Lyric stage was 2009, in Godspell. Much has happened since then.

“In 2013, my mother passed away. She had stage four colon cancer when they found it. Then she fought it for 14 years after that, which is a gigantic feat. At one point after her cancer had metastasized, I was sitting in the room with her, and she said, ‘I just want to see you on stage again.’ That broke my heart but also filled it up. Before she passed away, she got to see me make my Broadway debut in and White Christmas.

“So I’m excited not only about being here in Oklahoma but also coming back to Singin’ in the Rain, which got me out of my rut after my mom died. I also get the chance to do a principal role. I’ve been in several Broadway shows, which is a complete and utter blessing. In the ensemble, though, we don’t always do a lot of the things that show our skills. There’s a woman in New York named Cameron Adams. She is one of the best dancers on Broadway, easily. What people don’t know is that she’s hilarious. She’s a fantastic actress, and she can really sing. She has these talents but isn’t always able to show them off. 

“Anytime I get the chance to do a principal role, I put my heart and soul into it. Because I don’t know when the next time will be. So I’m going to fight and do the best that I can right now. That’s why I love coming here. It feels like I’m coming home.”

Photos by James Jin of @dancersofny

– Rodney Brazil, Arts Blogger

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