Aladdin

Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

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‘Aladdin’: Middle Eastern enough?

In its latest stage and screen riffs on a fantasy tale with Orientalist roots, Disney makes a highly selective push for representation

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?

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Andrés Felipe Orozco as the Calip in an onstage revival of Kismet in Neustrelitz, Germany, 2019. Photo: Tom Schweers

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.

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