Ari’el Stachel has departed the company of The Visitor, a new musical currently in previews at The Public Theater. A statement from the Off-Broadway company calls the development a “mutual decision.” A spokesperson for The Public confirmed that performances are currently expected to continue as scheduled but declined to comment further.
The Tony-winning actor’s exit is the latest shake-up in the show’s road to opening. Following a 19-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, the production pushed its start date from October 7 to October 14, and then, hours before the first preview, canceled the first two days of performances. The show played to an audience October 16, with understudy Ahmad Maksoud going on for Stachel in the role of Tarek.
Over the course of the most recent postponements, the company—which consists largely of an ensemble composed by performers of color—engaged in dialogues to establish community guidelines and address how certain depictions of racial themes and immigrant stories should be handled through a contemporary lens.
Based on the 2007 movie by Tom McCarthy, The Visitor follows Walter (played by Tony winner David Hyde Pierce), a white college professor who during a trip to New York encounters Tarek—an immigrant from Syria—and Zainab—an immigrant from Senegal (played by Alysha Deslorieux, who was announced in early 2020 to replace the initially reported Joaquina Kalukango due to scheduling conflicts). During the time away from audiences, company members and Public Theater staff sought to explore the ramifications of centering of a middle-aged white man in a story largely about Arab and Black immigrant experiences, as well as potential resources that would help the company in responsibly representing such communities.
The lens through which the story of The Visitor is told also required examination, particularly as theatres reopen after committing to “ensure that diversity is centered from the beginning” in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for equity and accountability in the industry. “The theatre is always in the moment…and our musical strives to respond not only to the issues of 2007, but also those of our moment,” Public Artistic Director Oskar Eustis writes in a program note. Two of the musical’s three writers are white—book writer Kwame Kwei-Armah is joined by composer Tom Kitt and librettist Brian Yorkey—as is director Daniel Sullivan. Artists of color do hold associate and advisory positions on the show, including Iranian-American assistant director Sanaz Ghajar, Alvin Ailey alum Shay Bland as an associate choreographer, and Syrian director Naila Al Atrash as a cultural consultant.
Stachel, who earned a Tony Award for his performance in The Band’s Visit, has been involved with the show’s development since its early stages. During a workshop presentation, Stachel initiated a conversation about Tarek’s accent, insisting that, unlike in the original film, the character should not have a Middle Eastern accent, as an indication of his formative years in the U.S. The performer told Playbill in an April 2021 interview that request remained on the table for nearly four years. A representative for Stachel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.