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.