1. South Asian cast as Jasmine in Broadway’s ‘Aladdin’ brings culture to the role: NPR

Shoba Narayan, the first South Asian actress to play AladdinPrincess Jasmine, took on the role in 2021.

Matthew Murphy / Disney

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Matthew Murphy / Disney

Shoba Narayan, the first South Asian actress to play AladdinPrincess Jasmine, took on the role in 2021.

Matthew Murphy / Disney

Shoba Narayan first faced the limits of being a South Asian woman in musical theater when she was only 13 years old.

Her school had decided to stage a production of The Wizard of Oz, and Narayan told her friends she would try the role of Dorothy. That would not happen, her classmates replied, for “Dorothy is not brown.”

“I realized during that experience how much representation meant at the time, and I realized how much my ethnicity played a role in my participation in theater,” Narayan said.

The experience was a “turning point,” Narayan said, putting her down on a path to fighting for starring roles in musicals and making history along the way. Last year, she was cast as the first South Asian actress in Broadway history to play Princess Jasmine in Aladdin.

From Bryn Mawr to Broadway

Narayan saw at a young age how much representation meant in art. Growing up in Bryn Mawr, Pa., Her parents, both Indian immigrants with a deep passion for music, supported Narayan through teaching ballet and an Indian dance called Bharatanatyam. They drove her to musical auditions and saw the one-woman shows she did every night at home.

Once upon a time, they hosted the famous Indian musicians Anoushka Shankar and her father, Ravi Shankar. After Narayan saw Anoushka play the sitar, it inspired her to learn the violin.

“There was this strong, talented, young woman who was so incredible at sitar,” Narayan said. “I picked up the second best thing, which was the violin, and it was very inspired by her.”

After graduating from the Boston Conservatory in Berklee in 2012, Narayan moved to New York, where she performed in theater productions and on television.

Her Broadway career began when she was cast as Natasha Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and she made history in that show in 2017 as the first South Asian woman to star in a Broadway page Bombay dreams in 2004.

Narayan then starred as Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton and was Nessarose in Evil before taking on the role of Princess Jasmine in September 2021. She plays alongside Michael Maliakel, who is creating her own story as the series’ first South Asian Aladdin.

Bringing specificity and cultural awareness to ‘Aladdin’

Since being cast as Princess Jasmine, Narayan has committed to bringing her culture and perspective as a South Asian woman to the role.

The two actresses who were cast in the role before Narayan, Courtney Reed and Arielle Jacobs, are both of partly Asian descent. But Narayan has brought certain changes to the show that reflect her South Asian background.

“I talked to Disney about some lines that could be moved to be made a little more sensitive to the audience that might come in. It’s small shifts, but I think it will make a wider audience feel welcome, “she said.

E.g, Aladdin is located in a kingdom called Agrabah. In the show, it was often pronounced with an “a” sound like “apple” rather than an “ah” sound like “olive”. Agrabah is, of course, a fictional city. But the cities and places in the Middle East and South Asia that inspired the name have a certain pronunciation, Narayan said – and she wanted it to be reflected in the show.

Narayan said she also adapted some of the choreography inspired by Bollywood dance to make it more specific.

“Things like that, I would be sure while I’m in the show, how can I help audiences that might come from our backgrounds feel a little more like they’re being properly represented,” Narayan said.

COVID-19 has hit theater and Broadway performances hard. Several shows have been on and off for more than a year. And recently, at the start of the omicron variant, Aladdin and other shows like Hamilton and Hadestown canceled all performances until after Christmas.

But despite the difficulties, there have still been moments of joy and celebration.

One that was particularly notable for Narayan was Aladdin celebrated Diwali in November last year. In a pre-show speech to the audience, Narayan told about the importance of the light festival around the world. After the show, she and Maliakel took questions from the audience about Diwali.

“As someone who grew up as a minority in this very specific culture and then wanted to be a part of this very specific community, it was a very emotional thing for me to bring the two parts of myself together,” she said. .

Asian American representation on Broadway has been slow

Narayan’s rise to the role of Princess Jasmine comes at a time when there has been an increased commitment from decision makers on Broadway to expand diversity and representation both on and off stage. With Asian American especially society that progress has sometimes been slow.

Data from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, which tracks representation on all of New York’s city scenes, shows that Broadway actors are still overwhelmingly white. When it comes to writers, producers and directors on Broadway, the lack of diversity is particularly acute. AAPACs 2018-2019 data, most recently available, show that 93.6% of producers are white, 93.8% of directors are white and 89% of writers are white.

Over the years, there has been very little growth for Asian-American artists, and even less growth for the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, performing. In the past, Aladdin has been specifically criticized for non-involvement of MENA actors.

“There are cultural markers in the show that look like places that are from a certain part of the earth, and the names associated with the story are also to some extent Arabic names,” said Nandita Shenoy, an actress and playwright in New York who also is a steering group member at AAPAC.

“If you present the rainbow, the one color from the rainbow that is not there is the one that is most closely associated with the place that this particular show is inspired by.”

Keeping track of the data on how diverse casting really is is one way to help hold Broadway accountable.

“We’re holding up a mirror to the industry,” Shenoy said. “We’re just saying, do you live the values ​​you say?”

For Narayan shows that Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and Hamilton were especially big wins because her roles were not specific to Asian actors.

“An effort was made to put a diverse cast on stage, no matter what role it was,” Narayan said of Hamilton. Since the movement for racial justice in the summer of 2020, she added, there have been even more talks about representation when it comes to casting.

That’s part of the reason she’s “excited” about the chance to play Princess Jasmine.

“She’s an animated character, she’s not even real, but she means so much to me, just the way she was portrayed as strong and smart. She had the courage to question authority at a time when it was not was normal, “Narayan said.

“We did not have much of that kind of portrayal of brown-skinned women from that part of the world while we were growing up. It feels very full circle to step into that role and also see the impact that this casting has made on so many South Asian women. . “

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