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Aladdin musical attacked for lack of Arab actors

It may tell the tale of Arabian nights and days, but the new Broadway play is being attacked over its apparently less-than-diverse cast

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Although Aladdin may tell the story of Arabian nights and Arabian days, it seems the Broadway adaptation of the hit Disney movie lacks any actual Arab actors with complaints going viral in the U.S. media in recent weeks.

Months before the March premiere of the Broadway show, a self-identified Middle Eastern actor anonymously posted a complaint on a theater blog which is now being picked up by media outlets.

“When Disney Theatricals announced that they were bringing Aladdin to Broadway, I was ecstatic,” wrote the self-identified actor, “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.

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

In response, a Disney representative told The Huffington Post this week that the ethnic breakdown of the cast can neither be confirmed nor denied, as per the company’s policy of “colorblind casting.”

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

Despite the policy, the U.S.-based American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has received complaints from actors since auditions launched, according to Samer Khalaf, the committee’s national president.

“This issue has always been there, in Hollywood and onstage, whether it’s appropriate for people to play other ethnicities,” Khalaf said. “To us, [the cast of Aladdin] is problematic.”

Despite complaints, a recent USA Today article highlights the fairly diverse cast. Aladdin, according to the news outlet, is played by Adam Jacobs, “born to a Filipina mother and “a Russian/Dutch/Polish/Jewish father and raised Catholic.” Meanwhile, the feisty Princess Jasmine describes herself as being of “mixed identity” while the Genie is played by a black actor.

Attacked for apparent racism

It is not just the Broadway musical adaptation that is facing criticism, however, the 1992 movie was attacked for its apparent racism with a 1993 New York Times piece about the movie being titled “It’s Racist, But Hey, It’s Disney,” in reference to a line in the opening theme song: “it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!”

The musical, it seems, has attempted to dampen the possibilities for backlash by editing the storyline. Instead of what the Arab-American journalist Jack Shaheen termed the “shady-looking storyteller” who introduced audiences to the tale of Aladdin in the movie, Broadway’s opening scene is narrated by the much loved Genie.

“The tone has changed a lot,” Mahyad Tousi, a script consultant for the Broadway musical, told The Huffington Post. “What was inherently violent about the residents of Agrabah, who were all a bit cynical and angry [in the 1992 film] - those things are all gone.”