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.
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.
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.”
An 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.
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.