Over the past decade, and especially in the past few seasons, there has been a concerted effort to include performers of color.

CANTON  Desiree Hargrave has a vivid memory of watching the "Cinderella" TV musical starring R&B singer Brandy in the title role. It was heady stuff for a 7-year-old black girl.

"Seeing Brandy as Cinderella sparked something in me — 'Desiree, you can be a princess, too,'" Hargrave recalled.

In 2017, Hargrave, then a vocal-performance major at Malone University, found herself playing Cinderella in a Players Guild production of the beloved story.

"One thing Jon (Tisevich, the show's director) really specified was that he wanted me to look natural," she recalled. "He said, 'I want you to have your afro at the ball." In the lobby after "Cinderella" performances, she could see the excitement on children's faces.

"It's important for people to see a traditional character like Cinderella in a different way, but with the same Cinderella attributes -- grace, kindness, patience and strength," Hargrave said. "Little girls and boys come to a show like this and they realize they can do this art form, too."

Over the past decade, and especially in the past few seasons, there has been a concerted effort to include performers of color onstage at the Players Guild. Such well-attended shows as "Ragtime," "Memphis," "Sister Act" and "Aida," which closed its run Sunday, have had a notable African-American presence in storylines and casts.

Diversity in roles

Tisevich, the Players Guild's resident director, is open to what he calls "color-conscious casting," putting black actors in roles typically played by white actors.

For instance, Hargrave and David Holbert played the leading roles of Esmerelda and Quasimodo in the recent Players Guild musical "Hunchback of Notre Dame." Hargrave also played Belle, young Scrooge's girlfriend in two seasons of "A Christmas Carol." Christopher Gales played Big Daddy in "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" and Daddy Warbucks in "Annie," both shows directed by Tisevich.

Two key roles in 2015's "Les Miserables" were played by actors of color, Miah Bickley as Eponine and Daryl Robinson as Enjolras.

When Tisevich moved back to his hometown of Canton in 2006 after doing theater in New York City and on tour, "it became a heartbeat of mine to do theater that represented the world we actually live in and not a small cross-section," he said.

Not surprisingly, Players Guild auditions are attracting more actors of color, ever-widening the talent pool.

"Over the past decade, it's like we've opened the floodgates on the performing side," Tisevich said. "So many people with brilliant gifts have a platform to do what they were created to do."

Josh Erichsen, the Players Guild's producing artistic director, said, "Jon's idea of diverse casting is something he was very passionate about. He had a vision for that, and the amount of talent across the board has increased by casting roles regardless of color. When you make that decision, the audience sees it and the community responds.

"To us there's no surprise when a show like 'Aida' or 'Memphis' or 'Sister Act' starts selling out," Erichsen said. "We've had an overwhelming response of people thanking us for bringing shows to the area that are inclusive of everyone and have a message that is relevant to a wide cross-section of people."

Reaction

Not everyone has been enthusiastic.

"We've gotten hate mail, sometimes anonymous, sometimes with their names signed," Tisevich said.

"Some very ugly, bigoted remarks, a lot of it fear-filled and hate-filled, about how there's no place for men and women of color to be in shows unless it's specifically 'Porgy and Bess,' to quote one of the letters. But that's balanced by a little girl coming to see a production of 'Cinderella' where Cinderella is an African-American and has curly like hers and her life starts to change."

The turning point for the Players Guild was the opening of musical "Memphis" in August 2017, with a story about racial tension in the South in the 1950s and a largely black cast.

"It was huge for us," Tisevich said. "A show that hit the race issue head-on and didn't pull punches and was very well received by our theater community. Now it's a no-brainer. This is what we should be doing. Theater should be a representation of all human experience."

The guild's upcoming production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," opening March 29, promises a diverse cast. "I'm putting the word out that I will be looking to cast 'Superstar' in this vein," Tisevich said.

Holbert, a black actor majoring in musical theater at Baldwin Wallace University, was invited by Tisevich to audition for Quasimodo, the title role in "Hunchback."

After learning he'd been cast, "I was jumping for joy, very happy and excited to take on that role and put my own take on it," Holbert said. "I don't believe there's anything in the story about his color. I think anyone can play the role." He found the guild community to be "incredible human beings, they care about you and are very supportive."

"Seeing a young black man who is talented and deserves that role completely do such a fantastic job is something that is really important for Canton to see. I still tear up thinking about it," Hargrave said about Holbert, her "Hunchback" costar.

Robinson, a Players Guild veteran who was cast non-traditionally by Tisevich in "Les Miserables," "Sweeney Todd" and "Beauty and the Beast," said, "When we start seeing characters as characters and not color, that's a good thing. I see Jon pushing for that. I think people in the community seeing more black characters onstage sends a message: If you come to auditions, you might be cast.

"I think the guild is really moving into opening things up to where your ethnicity doesn't matter," Robinson said. "The feeling wasn't always there. It's a process that takes time."

Reach Dan at 330-580-8306 or dan.kane@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @dkaneREP