Theatre Thursdays: Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway and Questions of Multiethnic Casting

Aladdin Broadway cast

Another Disney animated film has made the move to Broadway! Aladdin, which has been in development since 2010, premiered first in a Seattle production in 2011, and finally made its debut in the Big Apple in March of 2014. I was wondering if its journey to the Great White Way was going to give it a Great White Makeover, so I took a peek at the cast bio page. And well, huh. It’s certainly not entirely white-washed as I feared, and we see quite a diversity of actors: many African-American actors, a pretty decent percentage of both Latin@ and Asian actors, a few white actors, and several Ambiguously Ethnic actors. Did the casting directors purposefully say, “Let’s build a diverse cast?” or did they say, “Any brown people please”?  I will explain my concerns in more detail after the jump.

Aladdin costumes

Harem pants… the fact that they are even called “harem pants” is not a great starting point.

Well, I’m not entirely sure what all thought processes went into casting this show. The setting, Agrabah, is in the Middle East (“Arabian Nights” sets it in an actual region; they could have invented a fictitious place and sang “Grogkalic Nights”, but they didn’t), and the costumes are certainly based off of exaggerated, stereotyped ideas of Arabian/Ottoman/Middle Eastern garb. Obviously, the genie is supernatural, and could be cast as anyone if a djinn actor was unavailable. But when it came to diverse casting for the human characters, were they trying to make Agrabah a cosmopolitan model for the ages? Indeed, throughout history the Middle East has always been an area of high intercultural traffic, and there surely would have been contact with people from the Mediterranean, Sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia, at the very least, if not others. The contact with the “New World” of the Americas and the Middle East would have been non-existent as far as I know. There would certainly not have been any Hispanics/Latinos as such, because “Hispanic/Latino” as appellations for those of mixed foreign (largely but not entirely European) and indigenous peoples of the Americas is a rather modern concept. However, I think it’s probably safe to say that the casting directors did not put any thought into population migration geography and history and merely said, “Let’s make a brown cast.”

Now, a word on brown: “brown” is at times used as a racial/ethnic self-identifier by some people, but it comes with some caveats. Firstly, its delineations are vague, and has been used by a variety of people of color. The label most frequently seems to be used by people of Indian/South Asian or Middle Eastern descent, but also sometimes Latinos. Next, to borrow some anthropological jargon, it is used pretty much exclusively in an emic fashion, that is to say, used only by someone within such a categorization and who identifies as such; it is not something typically used by an outsider, which would be an etic usage. Lastly, It is also never someone’s primary self-identifier; a person would identify as Bengali or Bolivian or Punjabi or Turkish first, but the “brown” modifier works something like an inclusive shorthand for a variety of national and ethnic backgrounds, much like “queer” has become shorthand for a variety of sexual and gender orientations and identities.

Its usage by those who self-identify as “brown” provides one way to build some sense of community; someone from Sri Lanka and someone from Pakistan will obviously come from different cultural backgrounds, but will also have shared some experiences, particularly when it comes to their being othered in societies dominated by white people. However, if the label is used conceptually by outside (i.e. white) forces, I think it pretty much always leads to a “brown is brown” mentality, in which all non-white, non-Black, and non-Asian ethnicities are lumped together into an amorphous group devoid of any physical or cultural distinctions. By extension, I think it can lead to a “all people of color are interchangeable” mentality, which almost seems to be the case of the Aladdin casting.

Ya know, just the young emperor of China in the 2012 La Jolla workshop of The Nightingale (x)

Ya know, just the young emperor of China in the 2012 La Jolla workshop of “The Nightingale” (x)

In this excellent article, Ink discusses several facets of the notion of colorblind casting. For starters, the denialism inherent in “oh, I don’t see people that way” is not constructive for tackling issues of social justice; people do look different, and people are treated unfairly because of their differences. The problem is not in perceiving the differences, physical or otherwise, in human beings—humans are a wonderfully, beautifully diverse species. The problem is how people judge and treat each other based on these differences. Secondly, he points out the secret double edge of colorblind casting: if colorblind casting means actors of color can gain access to roles previously denied to them, that is good; but if it leads to a musical set in China, even a fictionalized China, that fails to cast any Asian/Asian-American actors in leading roles, something has gone very wrong.

For Aladdin, we have a strange situation that is almost like a corollary of colorblind casting—you might call it monotone casting—”your real ethnic background does not matter as long as you are the right color”. Obviously, there is a ton of multiracial/multiethnic mixing in the world, leading to many, many people whose ethnicity is not clear, but at the same time, many actors do have enough features to at least hint at their geographic ancestry. To assume all brown people look enough alike to be completely physically interchangeable is really saying, “I’m not taking the time to actually look at brown people to see that they do in fact have a variety of geographically distinct features, all I’m seeing is brown skin.”

Janina Gavankar True BloodAn example most present in my mind comes from TV, not theatre: the casting of Janina Gavankar as Luna Garza on True Blood. It does, on some level, irritate me that they cast an Indian-American actress (whom I love, btw) in a Hispanic role; the level that says, “Hey, white people, not all brown people look the same!” But in the end, I suppose it’s better for her professionally if she is able to get jobs playing characters who aren’t just South Asian/from the Subcontinent, since such roles are all but non-existent in most Western media. And maybe that’s what it really boils down to.

The sad fact is that in all media, theatre perhaps more than most, there are so few roles for people of color. Should Aladdin have tried to fill its cast with exclusively Middle Eastern actors? Or is the casting of many Black, Asian, and Hispanic actors a boon to them when the stage options for these actors can be so limited? It makes me think back to the film Memoirs of a Geisha, and the controversy of casting Chinese actresses in Japanese roles. Yes, there are even less opportunities for specifically Japanese roles, but there is also an enormous lack of roles, particularly lead roles, for Asian actors in general, so did allowing non-Japanese Asian actors give more chances for Asian actors as a whole? Ideally there would be enough plays about non-white cultures and places that ethnic accuracy could be a very prime factor in casting. But the state of theatre now is not in such a place.

Adam Jacobs, playing the title role of Aladdin, is actually of mixed Filipino and Jewish descent.

Adam Jacobs, playing the title role of Aladdin, is actually of mixed Filipino and Jewish descent.

So what are the options? I think a judicious use of colorblind casting can certainly help provide more opportunities for actors of color, emphasis on the judicious. I don’t want a world where Norm Lewis or Ramin Karimloo can’t star in Phantom or Les Mis. But we also desperately need more shows written about the great stories and histories from non-Western places. In such shows, much consideration must go into the casting process. Offering more opportunities for a greater number of actors of color is a good, but the price to pay may be the loss of the most accurate ethnic representation. Is it a fair deal or a devil’s bargain? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “Theatre Thursdays: Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway and Questions of Multiethnic Casting

  1. Excellent post! You voiced a lot of the same thoughts I’ve had with casting POC. I raised an eyebrow when Oded Fehr was cast as Carlos Oliviera, a Latino-American/unidentified indigenous character, in the Resident Evil movies. There are plenty of Latino-American actors so I wonder what their criteria were. I like the idea of colorblind casting, but I’ve seen it used as a defense against whitewashing one too many times. Even when it does work, you still have people who are just so fixated on race that the good stuff gets overlooked (e.g. the Cinderella starring Brandy… I remember how a lot of people couldn’t get past the fact that the Filipino Prince had a black mom and a white dad even though this is a fairy tale).

    • Hi thanks for reading and commenting! This is such a complex issue; on the one hand we don’t want an assumption that all people who look vaguely enough alike are ethnically or culturally interchangeable, but there are certainly many characters/actors (and people in general) whose background is genuinely more ambiguous. Using the closest example to mind: my mother is Hispanic/Latina and my father is white, so while by sheer genetic randomness I look pretty much entirely white, my brother is “Ambiguously Brown” — he’s actually probably more often mistaken for Middle Eastern than his true Hispanic heritage. So while authentic, genuine ambiguity could theoretically be an excuse for casting Middle Eastern or South Asian actors in Hispanic roles (or vice versa – my fellow author brought up an Israeli character on NCIS played by a Chilean actress), I just fear that the main perception of the casting directors is instead the simplistic “brown is brown” vision. Pan-ethnic groupings and solidarities have their place and purpose, in coming together as a common voice against discriminations for instance, but if they are the only way non-white ethnicities are perceived or understood, something is very wrong.

      and you bring up a good point at the end — in fairy tale/fantasy/sci-fi settings there are already fantastical situations; the laws of genetic inheritance aren’t the only scientific laws being broken!

  2. This is so much about why Once Upon a Time has pissed me off. There are many, many amazing fairy tales and folk tales in Asia, South America, and Africa yet they turned to legends with Lancelot (which are NOT the same thing) and books like Frankenstein (at least Alice and Pan were already done by Disney and written LIKE a long fairy tale, Frankenstein is just wtf?).

    But then they went and “did” Aladdin in the spin-off mini-series using Jafar and A genie and some flashbacks to Agrabah. The genie, whatever ancestry the actor has (some of it has to be European), definitely came off as white. I wasn’t happy about that but I sucked it up and accepted it as just some guy who was cursed. Until… SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER we meet his very much “brown”-and-could-totally-be-Arab brothers and his lighter-skinned, dark-haired-seems-more-Indian mother. And I just screamed at the TV. Because heaven forbid that lead white woman Alice is in love with any not passably white.

    So yeah, great post and important questions. I think mindfulness and awareness should beat out colorblind any day.

    • Hi thanks for reading and commenting! I have never watched Once Upon a Time, just follow it barely thanks to my brother sometimes filling me in on it, so I wanted to research a tad before I replied. Oh this show.

      The dude on Wonderland spin off is Peter Gadiot – an Englishman of Dutch and Mexican ancestry. sadly a case of “Close Enough!” casting. On a side note, look how much incredibly darker he looks on the official website than in any photo from the actual show: false advertising much?? and it seems he is part of a “But Not Too Dark” trope (an off-shoot of this I looked up pics of the character’s brothers, and I know color can distribute unequally (my brother and I are half-Hispanic, half-white and I look pretty much totally white while he looks “Ambiguously Brown”), but like you said, on our white-bread media, clearly the whitest brother would be the central character, the love interest.

      and you bring up another excellent point — where are the great stories of Asia, South America, and Africa, of the indigenous peoples of North America and Australia/Oceania? I know Mulan made an appearance, but I dont’ know how main she really was. In addition, casting a Black actor as Lancelot: what is it saying if their idea of inclusion is that the only way to make a Black character palatable to the white audience is to insert him into a European mythos and dress him up like a good little British knight instead of finding a character from African or African-diasporic folklore? troubling! also curious to note that the only Disney movie set in Africa doesn’t even have Black characters to bring to OUAT, because it has no human characters at all: The Lion King. Not that Knight of the Round Table should be white-only, but it is worrisome if they think (and worse if they are right!) that a white audience only wants to see exclusively Eurocentric folktales, with a few race lifts here and there to hide behind. you can try harder, Disney and OUAT!

      Thanks again for the comments!

  3. Pingback: Theatre Thursdays: Is Race Lifting in Theatre a Lie? | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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