Broadway Success of ‘Aladdin’ Underscores Need for Arab Actors

By Jamilah King Apr 04, 2014

What constitutes success for a Broadway musical? That’s the question that’s being asked this week after Disney’s "Aladdin" continued its popular Broadway debut without any Arab actors, according to its critics.

While the show boasts one of the most racially diverse casts in Broadway history, it’s unclear if any of those actors are actually of Middle Eastern descent. In an email to the Huffington Post, a Disney rep explained that the cast’s ethnic breakdown can neither be confirmed nor denied because of the company’s adherence to the policy known as "colorblind casting." Like it or not, ethnicity is left out of the casting process.

"Legally, the company is not allowed to ask potential employees about their ethnic background at any point during the hiring process," the representative wrote. "We encourage actors of all cultural backgrounds to audition for our shows and are fiercely proud of our talented and diverse cast."

But the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s national president Samer Khalaf says that the organization has been getting complaints from actors who say that they’ve been frustrated with the process.

"This issue has always been there, in Hollywood and onstage, whether it’s appropriate for people to play other ethnicities," Khalaf told Huffpo. "To us, [the cast of ‘Aladdin’] is problematic," later adding: "It’s like doing ‘West Side Story’ and having no Latinos," Khalaf said. "Would that be okay with the Latino community?"

Here’s more from the Huffington Post on colorblind casting:

Critics of colorblind casting argue that the practice exacerbates, rather than corrects for, the demographic imbalances that already exist in the world of theater.

According to a recent study of prominent New York theaters by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, Caucasian performers held 79 percent of roles during the 2011-12 season. Of the roles that did go to minority players — a subset that includes Middle Eastern, Asian-American, Latino, African-American and disabled performers — the study found that only 10 percent were "non-traditionally cast." In other words, roles that could have been filled by a performer of any background nearly always went to Caucasian actors.

Now, to be clear, Aladdin would be controversial no matter who’s casted in it. The main character, Jaffar, has been named one of the nine most racist characters in Disney’s history. Dodai Stewart summed up a lot of this history over at Jezebel after an anonymous Middle Eastern actor voiced concern at a Broadway-centric blog:

When Disney Theatricals announced that they were bringing Aladdin to Broadway, I was ecstatic. Finally a musical on Broadway about Middle Eastern people and culture. Middle Eastern actors would have the opportunity to play a wide variety of roles: the ingénue, the hero, the villain, the funny sidekick. Instead of the stereotypical roles we are always cast in: the taxi driver with one line, the belly dancer with no lines. I was so excited that Middle Eastern culture and actors would be represented in such a beloved story and to such a wide audience.

Imagine my shock when the full cast was announced. There are 34 people in the cast of Aladdin. Zero are of Middle Eastern descent.

If there was a production of "Mulan" on Broadway, and zero Asian actors were cast, the entire Broadway community would be up in arms.

Read more at Arts in Color.