Ato Essandoh’s inspiring, fully realized characters deserve more attention.
While the TV world talks more about issues of diversity and representation, the work that Ato Essandoh has been doing over the last few years deserves its own acknowledgement.
His string of recent roles has given us incredible characters of color who are also in positions of authority and positions to create change in their worlds. Ato is bringing to life characters who are leaders, who are mentors, and who are bringing people together.
That’s the kind of representation that TV needs more of—not just having more diversity, but having diverse characters who are at the forefront and who make an impact beyond simply being diverse.
His casting as Dr. Isidore Latham on Chicago Med gave the show one of its best supporting characters and one of the most interesting characters across the entire Chicago franchise.
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Latham was not only a Black department head, but also represented the Orthodox Jewish community, and the Asperger’s community. Each one of those aspects was important representation—but to have all of them, let alone within the same character, was impressive and groundbreaking. We hadn’t seen a character like Latham in the Chicago franchise before and we haven’t had one since.
The Chicago Med writing staff wrote some wonderful material for Latham in season 2, where they actively explored what it meant for him to be black, to be Jewish, and to have Asperger’s. He was not a department head despite his Asperger’s; the episode “Cold Front” depicted it as a strength, which is different to most portrayals of disabilities on TV. But the writing was only one part of how Latham was so great; it was also the incredible actor who played him.
The core of Latham’s story arc was the relationship between him and Dr. Connor Rhodes, as played so well by Colin Donnell. The two characters started out somewhat antagonistic, but then developed not only a professional respect but also a personal friendship. Writers can write those dynamics all they want, but they truly resonate when the actors genuinely bond, and it was clear on screen how Ato and Colin not only enjoyed working together, but their acting styles and their strengths complimented one another.
Together they created a relationship that was honest, moving and felt real. Audiences saw that the characters of Latham and Connor made each other better inside the hospital and out. Latham was also one of the best department heads Chicago Med has depicted—he might have lacked certain social graces, but he never flouted medical ethics, always carried himself with integrity, and was a calming force in a chaotic hospital.
In a series where the two remaining department heads of color—Sharon Goodwin (S. Epatha Merkerson) and Maggie Lockwood (Marlyne Barrett)—often get underutilized and the rest of the doctors struggle to separate personal and professional, Latham has been sorely missed while we’ve seen less of him recently. He wasn’t just a boss, he was a leader, he was Connor’s mentor, and he was a great example of being a doctor.
Last TV season we got to enjoy Ato Essandoh in The Code, CBS‘s military drama following an elite JAG squad. His character Major Trey Ferry was the rock of the ensemble—like all of the characters, he was both a Marine and a lawyer. But unlike his colleagues, he seemed to have a better handle on where he was in his life and career.
Trey was married, trying to potentially start a family, and he had that same sense of direction in the courtroom as well. Particularly when working with his good friend Captain John “Abe” Abraham (Luke Mitchell of Blindspot fame), Trey was the calm and steady hand to Abe’s fire and fight. He provided that additional dose of perspective, or in some cases, encouragement to aspire to more or to different.
Audiences didn’t get to know him very well, since The Code only lasted one season, but again we saw Ato’s character in a prominent position, actively making people around him better, and being someone that we could conceivably trust with our lives (in this case metaphorically speaking).
Now we’ve moved on to Netflix‘s Away. In general, if you haven’t seen the show yet, you should; it’s poignant and Ato Essandoh is part of a uniformly outstanding cast. But Ato’s character Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban is yet again someone that stands out not just for where he comes from (in this case a British citizen originally from Ghana) but who he is as a human being.
Kwesi is a doctor, but not a surgeon; he’s a botanist, and his whole purpose in being part of the Atlas mission is to hopefully foster literal life on Mars. What drives him isn’t personal success or adventure but he wants to create, to build, to grow. He may be the least experienced of the crew but he comes into the experience with an open mind, as well as an open heart. All the characters in Away are relatable and human, but Kwesi is the most inspiring.
The commonality between all these characters is Ato Essandoh. In the last five years he’s been a doctor (twice), a lawyer and a soldier—all in that upper echelon of respected professions. He’s not just representing people of color; he’s in these prominent roles. And he’s done incredible things in each of these roles: he’s led departments, represented countries, worked to make human history. No one can ever say he’s just playing “the Black character.”
Most importantly, he’s setting an incredible example for people of all ethnicities and backgrounds with the way he plays these characters. The development Ato gives them, the relationships that he builds, and the way he carries himself on screen are all worth taking more notice of.
Whether it’s Latham, Trey or Kwesi his characters are strong, hard-working people who treat those around them with the utmost respect and are driven to do more for others than for themselves. They are leaders if not in title than certainly by example. Ato gives them a warmth, a compassion and an integrity that can’t be written on the page.
We need to see more characters of color on TV, but we also need to see more characters of color who are important, and more characters overall who are aspirational. Ato Essandoh is a great example of all three of those things. As we look for more diversity and better representation, we shouldn’t overlook that he’s a wonderful actor who’s been quietly contributing to that discussion for a long time.
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