By MELORY MIRASHRAFI
One month before Disney’s new live-action Aladdin opened in movie theaters nationwide, the Broadway tour of the hit musical came to Portland. While millions of viewers across America are flocking to see both adaptations of the 1992 classic, only one version features any actors of Middle Eastern descent.
This comes as no surprise: There were no Middle Eastern actors in the original, either. To this day, I remember the moment I learned Princess Jasmine was voiced by a white woman. When I was twelve I primarily identified with Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (an introverted reader with an engineer for a father), so I was disappointed to be assigned Jasmine as my character at a Disney-themed birthday party because of my “Arabianness.” Princess Jasmine has since followed me around as the only “Middle Eastern” Disney Princess (Jasmin also happens to be my middle name, which doesn’t help), and although there’s no such place as “Agrabah,” an inevitable connection formed between the two of us, making it particularly shocking when I realized that the voice I had been listening to had never been Middle Eastern at all. While Jasmine’s vocals are done by Filipina singer and actress Lea Salonga, her speaking voice belongs to white American actress Linda Larkin, a difficult truth to swallow as someone who grew up identifying with Jasmine in part because she looked like me.
While the new live-action movie version of Aladdin in theaters attracts praise for its inclusion of Middle Eastern actors in its cast, it’s unsettling that the simultaneous Broadway tour is seemingly void of any such effort. Recent Disney endeavors such as The Princess and the Frog and Moana seem to seek cultural specificity and an acute awareness of race in a push for equity, diversity, and inclusion. It’s certainly also worth noting that both of the aforementioned examples are animated, circumnavigating certain elements of the casting process, such as embodiment. Why, then, the gap between what is seen on stage and screen when it comes to Aladdin?
AS AN IRANIAN-AMERICAN THEATER-MAKER and cultural consultant, I often ask what keeps a production from accurately representing a certain region, ethnicity, or culture. While Aladdin (2019) takes steps to right the lack of accurate cultural representation, it falls short of erasing Disney’s xenophobic legacy – one that stems from a combination of the tale’s Orientalist origins, as well as a history of misrepresentation of Middle Eastern people in theater and film.
Reductive and white-washed depictions of Middle Eastern and Muslim cultures can be seen in everything from the popular 1953 operetta Kismet, in which full casts are often void of Middle Eastern performers, to “The Libyans” in Back to the Future (1985), to Jake Gyllenhaal playing the title character in Prince of Persia (2010). Other harmful depictions of Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern actors include stereotypes such as The Bedoin, The Harem Girl, and The Haggler, all of which can be found in the original Disney Aladdin (1992) and its reiterations.
Over the last ten years, 0.83% of all roles on New York stages have gone to self-identified MENA (Middle Eastern/North African) actors. In 2017 Noor Theatre, a New York based company “dedicated to supporting, developing and producing the work of theatre artists of Middle Eastern descent,” published “A Call for Equity and Inclusion: An Open Letter to U.S. Theatres from Members of the Middle Eastern American Theater Community,” in response to the dearth of MENA voices seen and heard on the American stage. While the numbers have risen in recent years (The Asian American Performers Action Coalition performed a demographics study during the 2016-2017 year, finding that 1.7% of actors on New York stages identify as MENA), the stories that are welcomed into the mainstream often invite reductive and highly orientalized depictions of Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim people.
Aladdin is one of these depictions. “Aladdin is a strange case since the 1992 movie itself is a white dream,” journalist Justin Charity noted in 2017, speaking to the mystical streets and ethnically ambiguous caricatures found in the fictional city-state of Agrabah. In fact, records show that the folktale on which Disney’s Aladdin is based is originally set in China, and later mixed with a story set in Persia as told by a Syrian woman, then translated and added to 1001 Arabian Nights by a French man, adding to the layers of cultural conflation and Orientalism at play.
FICTION IS A POWERFUL TOOL, and the convenience of setting Aladdin in a fictitious land is that it creates a cultural grey area — there are no Agrabahni (Agrabian?) people, and therefore no way to ensure cultural authenticity with regards to casting or design, something that’s evident in both the 2019 live-action and 2014 Broadway adaptation of Aladdin. Though the people in question are fictional, the legacy of Disney’s Aladdin is a “Middle Eastern” one, and each depiction of Aladdin affects the nation’s view of Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim people regardless of intent.
Both iterations suffer from similar issues, but on different scales, leaving many questions to be answered: What is the live-action movie doing that separates it from the Broadway version? Why is Disney concerned with representation in the live-action Aladdin but not in the Broadway touring production? And is there such a thing as an unproblematic Aladdin? (Not really.)
The Broadway adaptation of Aladdin features few to no Middle Eastern performers (Disney doesn’t disclose its cast demographics, although recent addition Ainsley Melham (Aladdin) in New York is part Lebanese), and among the belly skirts, painted-on eyebrows, and turbaned villains, it’s hard to tell at first sight what the production’s goal is in terms of representation. The designers for the Broadway adaptation of Aladdin visited Morocco (for the record, not in the Middle East) for inspiration, adding North African aesthetics to the already existing conflation of the Middle Eastern and East Asian. Dramaturg Annie Wang described the stage production in 2017 as a “… pastiche of Orientalist stereotypes that uses the half-dozen cultures it borrows from as inspiration rather than reference,” noting that the casting is “constructed in a way that purposely sacrifices cultural accuracy for representational breadth as part of its artistic vision.”
With the new live action Aladdin, which opened on May 24, the question of Disney’s approach to representation was raised once more, this time with a “Third time’s the try!” mentality. The casting call for Aladdin asked specifically for Middle Eastern actors and performers, and the company ultimately decided on Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud in the title role, and Indian-British actress Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine. Julie Ann Crommett, Disney’s Vice President of Multicultural Engagement, described the 2019 take on Aladdin as “the first time in a long time that you get such a positive and uplifting portrayal of the [Arab] community,” communicating Disney’s efforts to cast “as authentically and as culturally associative as possible. … Given the first animated movie and the origins of the story in terms of the entire history of the text and story of Aladdin, it very much reflects a mixing or association of different cultures in a broad region that you can consider the Middle East slash South Asia and even to China actually by extension, so really the Silk Road.”
Yet despite featuring Middle Eastern, South Asian, and North African performers, the new Aladdin still suffers from the same conflation of cultures as its predecessors. Evelyn Alsultany, Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, notes, “Belly dancing and Bollywood dancing, turbans and keffiyehs, Iranian and Arab accents all appear in the film interchangeably.” Gemma Jackson, the set designer for the live-action remake, also reported that originally the design was once again going to be inspired by Morocco, but that idea was then dropped. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Jackson commented that the shift away from one particular location was in part due to her desire “just to pull things from where I wanted them, I didn’t just have to be Moroccan, I could go anywhere I liked in my imagination.” Jackson’s rejection of specific regional and cultural references in favor of an Eastern monolith reinforces Agrabah as an Orientalist space, existing only within the white fantasy (much like, say, Disney World).
Throughout the live-action remake, the Arabic word “yalla,” (يالا) an imperative, colloquial phrase meaning “hurry up,” or “let’s go,” is thrown around a comical number of times, once even by the talking parrot, Iago. “Yalla” is an important word to note in part because it stems from the phrase “Ya Allah” (يالله), roughly translating to “O’ God,” and is the closest thing to a direct reference to Islam in any version of Aladdin. The lack of Islam in a depiction of a Middle Eastern space, fictional or not, is an act of erasure in order to make the space more welcoming for Western audiences. The Middle East simply doesn’t exist without its religious history, making moments where Islamic references were added into the live-action particularly impactful. My favorite instance of the re-incorporation of Islam in Aladdin (2019) is a switch in the song “Prince Ali,” from the line “Brush up your Sunday Salaam,” to “Brush up your Friday Salaam,” in acknowledgement of Fridays as the Islamic holy day. As the Genie tells Aladdin in preparation for his first wish, “be specific with your words,” and in the instances where changes were made, they don’t go unnoticed.
WITHIN THE VEIN OF LANGUAGE, in both the live-action remake and the Broadway production Aladdin and Jasmine maintain their palatable American accents in relation to those around them, allowing them to serve as an “in” to the exoticized world Disney has concocted (although, admittedly, one with less blatantly racist accents than in the animated version). Aladdin himself, played by Mena Massoud and Clinton Greenspan on screen and on the Broadway tour, respectively, remains neutral and boyish. The Broadway iteration keeps Aladdin’s sincerity and youth, including a song about Aladdin’s mom, called “Proud of Your Boy,” while Massoud’s Aladdin is charming and aloof against Jasmine’s clear competence and goal-oriented mindset. Naomi Scott’s Princess Jasmine in the live-action movie is given significantly more agency than any of her predecessors, revealing a desire to be Sultan of Agrabah, and seen most often with her trusty friend and handmaiden, Dalia (played by Iranian actress and Saturday Night Live star Nasim Pedrad). Dalia’s inclusion in the live-action remake is refreshing, serving as a parallel to Aladdin’s friendship with the Genie, especially considering the addition of Aladdin’s lackeys in the Broadway version.
Jasmine is given a new song in both the Broadway and live-action iterations of Aladdin — the Broadway version being a classic Disney Princess “I want” song called “These Palace Walls,” in which Jasmine ponders,
“Why shouldn’t I fly so far from here?
I know the girl I might become here
Sad and confined and always locked
behind these palace walls!”
“These Palace Walls” is not unlike the Jasmine the world already knows — passive, and yearning for a life she doesn’t have. The palace itself in this case seems to serve as a thinly veiled (as it were) symbol for Jasmine’s desire to escape from her “oppressed” (Middle Eastern) lifestyle in favor of a more “liberated” (Western) alternative. Jasmine’s song in the new movie Aladdin, “Speechless,” is a much more active take on her ballad (albeit a bit on the nose) about finding a voice in the uphill battle to be heard as a woman in society. Jasmine sings “Speechless” while the other characters on screen remain frozen, forcing it to ultimately (and ironically) serve as more of an internal monologue leading up to her moment of glory, belting,
“I won’t be silenced
You can’t keep me quiet
Won’t tremble when you try it
All I know is I won’t go speechless.”
The most drastic character change in Aladdin (2019) is arguably Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar. Jafar is one of Disney’s most racially insensitive characters, and one least acknowledged as such, something leaned into by the Broadway production of Aladdin. For reference, here are the three versions of Jafar:
The depiction of Jafar evolves from caricature in the 1992 animated movie (voiced, accent and all, by Jonathan Freeman, who also played Jafar in the New York production), to a white actor (Jonathan Weir) in blatant Arabface in the Broadway touring production currently circulating the United States, and finally (and suddenly quite clearly) a regular Arab man. The horror of the stage incarnation of Jafar is almost too much to bear — the painted-on, “evil Arab” eyebrows, the false beard, and the green up-lighting (a signifier of all things malevolent and otherworldly) all construct a depiction of Arab men that is harmful, racist, and unethical. Kenzari’s Jafar, while clearly misogynistic and power-hungry, feels grounded in reality in his performance and presentation, and most importantly, far from any version of the character seen before.
THE EVOLUTION OF JAFAR, a more thoroughly developed character arc for Jasmine, and the inclusion of Middle Eastern, East Asian, and North African artists create a push in the right direction. Yet Disney’s approach to Aladdin in both new versions is misguided in its understanding of what work needs to be done in order to foster inclusivity and representation. Similar to the Genie’s advice to Aladdin, specificity is key to creating something that will do you good. Otherwise, the creation of Agrabah mirrors the haphazard creation of “Ababwa,” the fictitious city created by Aladdin and the Genie in order to convince the people of Agrabah of his new prince-hood: Suddenly appearing on a map that looks suspiciously like Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
As for why Disney is so much more concerned with representation on screen than stage, an argument could be made for the audiences to whom each medium caters. Historically, theater (Broadway in particular) has been a white, upper-middle and upper class luxury. In contrast, according to a study done by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 2017, a majority of movie-goers are people of color between the ages of 12-24, and over fifty percent of movie audiences identify as women. While Broadway doesn’t officially document ethnic demographics, the aforementioned study done by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition in 2015 found that approximately 78% of Broadway audiences are white, and the Broadway League’s yearly demographic report showed the average Broadway tour-goer as between the ages of 50 and 64. Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway doesn’t care about casting Middle Eastern people because it caters to an older, whiter, and wealthier audience.
Although the new live-action Aladdin takes strides in the right direction, it still exists on a foundation of harmful stereotypes and generalizations. If Disney’s goal for Aladdin is indeed increased representation for Middle Eastern, North African, and East Asian people, the same casting efforts should be put forth by Disney on Broadway as in Hollywood, lest it never connect with the audience it so desperately claims to want to represent. In the words of Sultan Jasmine, “Our greatest challenge isn’t speaking up against our enemies, but defying those whose approval we seek the most … you seek glory for yourself, and you would win it off the backs of my people.”