By Sheila Wickouski
On January 21, Arena Stage will host the world premiere of Change Agent, a fictional take on the historic events of the 1960’s that still shape our world today. Tony Award-nominated playwright and director Craig Lucas, known for An American in Paris and The Light in the Piazza, imagines how unsung influencers and insider voices shaped major decisions around real events like the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights movement and the Cold War.
Among the cast members bringing this rich history to life is Jeffery Omura, whose experience stretches beyond the stage to the political area. Omura is a founding member of Fair Wage Onstage, Be An #ArtsHero and an elected member of Actors’ Equity’s National Council. He was a recent candidate for New York City Council and was named to city and state’s 2021 Labor 40 Under 40.
Ahead of the opening of Change Agent, Omura shared his thoughts with The Southwester, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
The Southwester: Tell us about your role in this play.
Jeffery Omura: This play is a page turner. I literally couldn’t put it down. Change Agent illuminates one of the most important and yet least known chapters of U.S. history. Craig Lucas has written what I think will be an instant classic by weaving the personal emotional life of the characters into a greater philosophical battle. It’s what all great plays strive to do.
When you look like me, you don’t often get to play characters based on historical figures of any kind, let alone people who played pivotal roles in U.S. history. I’ve always been personally drawn to this era. There was so much optimism coming out of World War II in terms of what the United States could accomplish. Alone on the global stage as the sole superpower, we had an opportunity to shape the world with our values and in our own image. That optimism and patriotism shaped my worldview growing up in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This play helps us understand where so many of the stories we tell ourselves come from.
SW: How did you get started in politics? How do you feel your political experiences have related to your roles as an actor?
JO: In 2016, I was acting in an Off-Broadway play at one of New York’s best-known theater companies, making just $593 a week before taxes and watching my friends and colleagues go broke while working on union contracts. I got together with other stage managers and actors and helped create the Fair Wage Onstage movement and campaign, organizing the Off-Broadway community around fair wages. Fair Wage Onstage gave Actors’ Equity leverage at the negotiating table to win record-breaking wage increases up to 83%. I’ve been hooked as a labor organizer ever since and was soon elected as an officer of Actors’ Equity.
When the pandemic shut down our entire industry, we quickly realized we were getting left out of the conversation at every level of government. The arts and culture industry doesn’t have the political infrastructure in place that other industries do—lobbyists, PACs, and elected officials—waking up every morning thinking about and advocating on behalf of the industry and its workers. So, I joined a ragtag group of arts workers and organized a campaign called Be An #ArtsHero to lobby Congress for direct relief for arts venues, helping to secure $16 billion through the Save Our Stages program.
New York City, as the global capital of arts and culture, was hit harder than anywhere else. With all of the arts advocates on New York’s City Council term-limited, I wanted to guarantee our industry had a seat at the table to shepherd the city’s $200 million arts budget—the largest in the world. So, I ran for City Council to revitalize the arts, bring back tourists who support our hotels, restaurants, and retail, and get everyone back to work. While I didn’t win, we secured pledges from over 90 candidates across the city to prioritize the revitalization of arts and culture and succeeded in putting the arts at the forefront of the conversation.
There’s a ton of crossover between the two required skill sets [for a politician and an actor], but the most important skill for both is the ability to listen. It’s one of the first lessons you learn as an actor, but I wonder if anyone ever bothers to tell politicians that than what their constituents have to say. When you’re asking someone for their vote, you better be able to listen to what they need and want so that you can effectively represent them both on the campaign trail and when you’re elected. That’s why I tried starting every conversation with voters by acknowledging the hardship of the pandemic and asking how they’ve fared and what they’ve experienced.
SW: Have you taken on political roles in plays before? How does it feel to perform this in DC?
JO: I’ve often said that putting an Asian body onstage in the American theater, where we are so rarely seen, is an inherently political act. So, you could argue that every role I’ve played has been political.
I originated the titular role in Lloyd Suh’s Charles Frances Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, a play, loosely inspired by political activist and pioneer of the Asian-American theater Frank Chin, that examines how Asian-Americans have been portrayed in popular media throughout American history.
And I’ve played Coriolanus, which is probably Shakespeare’s most political play about a war hero seeking to lead the Roman Senate. It’s thrilling to perform Change Agent for an audience here in DC that will be especially familiar with the names and events sprinkled throughout the play. I imagine they’ll hear the play differently than an audience would anywhere else.
SW: Tell us what it is like working with Craig Lucas in his dual role as the author and director of Change Agent.
JO: It’s a real honor to originate a role in a new play by Craig Lucas, one of our greatest living playwrights. I expect this play to have a long life in the American theater after this production so we’re not just telling a story about history, but we’re also creating it.
SW: What advice do you have for young actors?
JO: It’s so much easier to put yourself out there today than it was when I was first starting out. Don’t wait for the gatekeepers to deem you worthy for a job. Create your own art. Put it out there on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. Build your following. Say yes to social invitations. Go to parties and gatherings. Meet as many people as you can. When someone invites you to their cabaret or blackbox theater performance, go to it. Show up for people and they’ll show up for you. Write hand-written notes. Stay in touch with people. That’s how you network. Be kind to everyone. You never know who will be in a position to offer you a job. Find your collaborators—the people who inspire you to create—and stick with them. And always ask for more money. You might not get it, but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t ask.
Change Agent runs from January 21 through March 6, 2022. For more information, visit arenastage.org.