Broadway Production Of Aladdin Takes Racism To A New Level By Hiring Zero Middle Eastern Actors

disney's aladdin musical

I wish it surprised me in the slightest that the Broadway cast of Disney’s Aladdin contains exactly zero Middle Eastern people. Zero.

The movie has been criticized time and time again for its subtle racism– the main characters, the good guys, have very European features and light skin, whereas the villains are cartoony stereotypes of “barbaric” Arab people– but since this is a stage musical, Disney had the chance to revamp the story, change certain lyrics, and take care with their casting decisions. While they did make some positive changes, such as hiring several people of color, there’s a pretty obvious issue with setting a musical in the Middle East and then hiring zero Middle Eastern people to play the parts.

Last year, an anonymous Middle Eastern actor wrote a letter to Arts In Color about his concern over the Aladdin production. Jezebel includes this excerpt in their coverage:

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 ingenue, 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.

Right on. Some may argue that this isn’t as big of an issue as that hypothetical Mulan situation would be, since the ever-changing definition of “whiteness” in the US oftentimes includes Middle Eastern people, but it’s abundantly clear that people of Middle Eastern descent are subjugated and oppressed at this point in our country’s history. If someone is only “arguably” white, they’re not benefiting from the same privileges as someone who looks like they’ve just stepped off the Mayflower– and we certainly know that anyone who passes for Muslim can be subjected to intense prejudice in the US right now. It’s absolutely unacceptable that the Aladdin cast is made up entirely of people who are categorically not Middle Eastern. We should be able to hold a huge company– especially one that has so much impact on the world– to a higher standard.

Via Jezebel / Photo: DisneyOnBroadway

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    • Kaitlin Reilly

      First the whole “Rooney-Mara-is-Tiger-Lily-thing” and now this? Ugh.

    • CMJ

      My Arab self is going to get some popcorn for this:

      http://img.pandawhale.com/post-28198-tina-fey-amy-poehler-popcorn-g-EJaP.gif

    • Elizabeth

      Does anyone have a site that confirms the no-middle-eastern-actors thing? I ask only because I haven’t found anything other than iterations of the same article. My boyfriend is Israeli (I know, one can argue all day about whether Israel is REALLY Middle Eastern — but he and his father both look middle eastern, with darker skin and dark features) and has a non-middle-eastern sounding name, as do all his siblings (who, incidentally, are mostly pale and blonde).

      I’m assuming this is correct, though, as there have been an unbelievable number of major theaters that have recently cast white people in non-white-people roles. It’s sickening and it makes me very sad.

      • CMJ

        There’s a USA Today article (linked in Jezebel) that talks about how the show is “very diverse” but it really doesn’t say anything about anyone being of Middle Eastern descent. I would think they would mention it if there were but who knows?

        I think people of Arab descent are just seen as vaguely “ethnic” looking as opposed to actually Arab so that is kind of what troubles me about this – the “Oh, don’t worry, everyone looks ethnic so we have it covered.” I am not saying that the entire cast should be Arab, but it would be nice if there was one person who was Arab….

        I don’t know if I am making sense. I can’t decide how I feel about this – as an actor, I know how hard it is to find the appropriate actor for a part but I have also seen so many ethnic characters get played by non-ethnic actors. In addition, I am Lebanese. I am really trying to keep an open mind but sometimes I just want to say – IT WOULDN’T KILL YOU TO CAST ONE ARAB!!

      • Elizabeth

        Oh, I definitely agree! And given the seemingly endless string of recent casting faux pas, I would not be at all surprised if there are, in fact, no Middle Eastern actors. I just haven’t found a source confirming or denying this.

      • CMJ

        I mean, I could make myself available.

    • tifygodess24

      Just curious but Has anyone looked into or taken into consideration who may or may not be auditioning for these roles? This is broadway , its not just an acting gig. Sadly The majority of broadway actors and actresses are white , not saying that everyone is ( obviously ) but they can’t hire people who don’t audition. Now with that said , if people of all races are auditioning and they are being passed up for just white actors then you have a bigger story than just this! I just think we should be looking from all angles so that way we can hold people accountable ( like Disney etc )

    • Leslie Blevins

      Before automatically jumping to the conclusions made in this blog, there are two very important facts that weren’t taken into consideration by the writer before hitting the “post” button. First, as the person in the post below pointed out: why do you assume that none of these actors are of middle eastern descent? Just because they appear to be Caucasian or have lighter skin? That seems like racial stereotyping. Not everyone from the Middle East looks the same, just like not every Caucasian or African American looks the same; there are a multitude of variations of height, skin tone, hair and eye color within all racial groups. To assume otherwise is just as bad as racial profiling. And if are going to head down the profile path, then you need to consider the fact that many of the ethnic groups making up the region known as the Middle East, have different appearances within each subset (consider Saddam Hussein’s attempts to eradicate specific ethnic groups in his country. Generalizations of eye and skin color as well as facial bone structure were used identify those believed to fall into certain ethnic groups just as hitler did with the Jews during the Holocast). Second, well over 90% of people from the Middle East are Muslim (linguistic and ethnic variations aside, they are still all still part of the larger “Islam” faith). Have you even considered the possibility that the taboos and strict rules governing the followers of Islam might self-limit the number of middle eastern actors available to fill such roles in the first place? Acting itself is a huge no-no, and when you toss in the scantily-clad costumes (by Muslim standards, not by ours), I can’t imagine there are droves or middle easterners vying to be onstage in this type of production in the first place. Not to say that there aren’t a plethora of examples where discrimination actually does exist in the stage and film disciplines, but I’m just not sure there is enough information provided to leap to the assumptions the writer for this blog is asserting.

      • Emily

        Amen.

      • chelyabinska

        Thank you for your good post. But you can not tell me the producers/directors couldn’t find 1 single Arab actor to play the role of an Arab in an classical Arabian fairy tale story set in Arabia?

        Funny how they don’t have any shortages to find any actor of Arab descent to play a terrorist bomber or bad guy such as in Taken, 24, Homeland, True Lies, Rules of Engagement, etc.

        Remember popular culture is really powerful on how different ethnicites and races are perceived by the masses; and such unhelpful, negative portrayal just reinforce those stereotypes instead of show people how they really are.

    • Amanda

      You do realize most Broadway directors color-blind cast, right? Meaning they don’t care to cast roles by skin color, but by talent? Perhaps there were just no talented Middle Easterners to cast…

    • FemelleChevalier

      …Middle Easterns are diverse when it comes to physical appearances. Just watch some of their movies and/or google actors. And I mean, isn’t Israel a part of Middle East?

      If we’re going by physical appearances, then suppose a typical Indian should be considered as Middle Easterns, too, right? But they are actually South Asians.

      You’re kinda stereotyping, here.

    • JMSingh

      Some years ago, a Broadway production came out called “Bombay Dreams” which was entirely set in India, and had a cast ENTIRELY made up of actors who were Indian or of Indian descent. I made it a point to travel to see it, and it was wonderful. Seeing people who shared my heritage was so fulfilling. Sadly, that this wasn’t possible for Aladdin .