Casting Aladdin: Where are all the Middle Eastern Actors?

Hi there,

I am a Middle Eastern Broadway actor in NYC. I’ve been trying to find a group that is passionate about diversity, and a teacher-friend of mine sent me your facebook page and website.

Photo Credit: Hypable

Photo Credit: Hypable

I have been very lucky to have been working consistently in theater for the past 5 years. I have faced many struggles as an actor of Middle Eastern descent but I am happy to say that I have found a way to make it work. I am not normally the kind of person who makes a stink about things, but something has recently happened in the Broadway community, and I feel so strongly that something has to be done. Unfortunately, I haven’t posted any of my thoughts about it, because I am trying to protect my own career. I fear that if I do speak up, I will be blacklisted by the producers, casting director, etc. I also don’t feel like I have a big community of minority actors that would have my back if I did raise awareness about this issue. I have written the following post. I would love to hear your thoughts. I would love for you to post about what you think about all this as well. Here’s the issue:

Photo Credit: Disney

Photo Credit: Disney

“I debated for a very long time about what to say about this, and whether or not I should say it all. But I have come to the conclusion that it has to be said, merely to raise awareness, and to get the conversation going.

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. Especially the community of Asian actors and the AAPAC. Why is it different for a show taking place in the Middle East?

Now I know one might argue: “Aladdin” takes place in “Agrabah” which is a fictitious city in the Middle East. Yet, the show is very clear that it takes place somewhere in the Middle East. Middle Eastern culture, practices, dress, and even Arabic words are used in the show. The opening song of the show is called “Arabian Nights.” Therefore, whether or not “Agrabah” is a real city in the Middle East or not, there is no denying that writing of the show proves that it does take place in the Middle East.

When audition notices came out for “Aladdin”, every character’s description said “Any ethnicity.” As much as I appreciate the open casting process, this show is about a very specific and underrepresented ethnicity. The story of this show is based in very real and true cultural prejudices that are specific to Middle Eastern culture and upbringing.

I am 100% for casting diversity, but when a story is about race, and about a specific ethnicity, I believe that ethnicity should at least be represented. I do understand that the pool of Middle Eastern actors in NYC is small in comparison to other ethnic groups. I am not suggesting that every actor cast in Aladdin should have been of Middle Eastern descent. I am merely asking why was it not a priority to find even a handful of Middle Eastern actors to represent the culture of the show?

Photo Credit: Disney Theatricals

Photo Credit: Disney Theatricals

This is the same issue that came up with the Asian American community being under represented in the production of “The Nightingale” at La Jolla Playhouse. I 100% supported them in their efforts to raise awareness about the casting choices of that production, and I hope other ethnic minorities understand and support this message.

So I ask the creative team and producers of “Aladdin”, why? Why was it not a priority to cast Middle Eastern actors in this show? The fact that no one in the cast or creative team is Middle Eastern, almost suggests that this production is now a satire of Middle Eastern culture.

And let me clarify: I have the utmost respect for every actor cast in “Aladdin.” I have many good friends in the show. They are all talented and beautiful people, and they will no doubt do a wonderful job. It’s just shocking to see that the first Middle Eastern musical in Broadway history has not one middle eastern actor to represent that culture on the stage.


An actor of minority

What do you think about what this actor had to say? Do you think there’s a problem or not? If so-what’s the solution? What does the community think? Lets continue this conversation…and if you want to subscribe to Arts in Color check out the top of the toolbar to your right!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the original author (Anonymous). These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Arts in Color staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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36 thoughts on “Casting Aladdin: Where are all the Middle Eastern Actors?

  1. I have kids that love musicals and are involved in a show choir and seriously ponder going into musical theater. We haven’t seen aladdin on broadway yet but they really want to. Their dad is also middle eastern. I fully agree with the author the the ME is diverse with regard to coloring and hue. However the majority is brown with black hair. The same as the hispanic /latino community. One of my daughters has light brown/blonde hair. Our niece has bright dark red hair. But regardless the majority of arabs tend to have a distinct look. The problem is that in the US arabs are considered caucasian by the government. Yet no one considers them white. This was exemplified by one of the commenting actors that said the casting agents tell him their are no middle eastrn roles yet he can’t audition for an italian or greek role. This musical is the equivalent of west side story with no latinos. It is the equivalent of mulan with white people and porgie and bess done in blackface. My girls were appalled that no one was arab. Please give them some role models. If colorblind casting exists, then why doesn’t it go both ways? Why are the lead roles in aladdin cast by actors that are kinda brown but really look more asian or latino? Underrepresented groups should get first consideration when the role is of a particular ethnicity. But they should also have the opportunity to be cast in other roles outside of the ethnicity as well.

  2. hi all, I just went to see this show and have a few updates/comments:

    First of all I liked the show. If your are in to a comedy musical romps and you like the film, then I think you’ll like it. It’s better than the movie in my opinion. Just wanted to let you know. I asked one of the ushers about the cast and they said Disney practices color blind casting, which means they don’t ask about ethnicity. Even after the casting is done. I myself am half arab half turkish. I also act. You wouldn’t be able to tell my ethnicity from either my name or the way I look. I have two cousins who are blonds! Frankly the Middle East is not a place that has one look —not everyone from the ME is brown or tan! Also many have western sounding names, or change their names to sound more common. So I really don’t know how one could know if anyone in the cast is from the Middle East. Also that the author has written this article anonymously should tell you why if there there is any ME cast members, why they are not comfortable jumping in this discussion purely base on assumptions.

    Having said that I think we need to look at how many ME actors actually auditioned, and what their experience was. If they were indeed the best for the parts they auditioned for. I don’t know who would be out there with the singing and dancing abilities necessarily to play these parts. Maybe you guys do. Did they audition? Were they available? etc. I think there is so much that goes into this process that it’s really hard to assume Disney chose NOT to hire ME actors simply to piss us off. All things being equal why wouldn’t they hire a more authentic actor for the part. I think we can all agree that this is the entertainment business, not the authenticity business, which means that they need to make money through entertainment. That comes first. All things being equal on that part (near equal talent, credits, audition) then why wouldn’t they play up authenticity. Lastly, I’d rather parts not call for any specific ethnicity, which then allows me to audition for them and try and show the powers that I can play this person, regardless of my ethnic DNA, and perhaps even make it better by playing it with a twist. Conversely I don’t even get to audition for most of the roles that are out there.

  3. I completely agree with the Author. And for so long I’ve thought of what the Author has brought up. It’s so unfortunate to middle eastern actors when we see all the middle eastern roles on TV and in movies being portrayed by every other ethnicity except for actual middle easterners. Or, to see the only roles out there for middle easterners are the stereotypical crazy middle eastern roles. By the way, I’m a Christian middle easterner. Wish I can bring that out to the public and make them aware of how frustrating those stereotypical roles can be to a middle easterner – particularly to a Christian middle easterner. But I guess for a starving actor I think a stereotypical role is better than no role at all.
    I can pass as White, Italian, Greek or Hispanic and yet still I hear … “Oh, you’re middle eastern? Cool… But I have no middle eastern part, sorry”. Just give me a chance to Audition for those other roles I want to yell… But of course I don’t. I smile and thank them for their time, because I too am afraid if being blacklisted.
    Does anyone know of any casting agents that are interested in helping middle easterners find roles? Again my background is middle eastern and I’m in Texas and it’s been hell trying to find parts.
    This whole cultural diversity thing in acting is really lacking across the board and not just for middle eastern actors. This seriously needs to be fixed. In the meantime, I’ve written three scripts so far. I may just start casting middle easterners, African Americans and Asians for all the characters I create. Thanks for bringing this up.

  4. “If actors are not given the opportunity to portray their own ethnicity, let alone anyone else’s, how will we ever understand this dimension of our humanity and how will these artists have the opportunity to grow and develop as their peers do? It makes a profound difference to the artist, to the process of the other artists working on the piece and it affects the experience of the audience.

    When we speak of authenticity, it is to insure that actors of color are allowed to inhabit their own cultural identity whenever appropriate. The practice of non-traditional casting was never intended to justify casting a Caucasian in a culturally-specific role, or casting a non-disabled actor in a disability-specific role. To do so is a misappropriation of the term and the practice, since the goal is to rectify exclusion. Until such time as there is genuine equality throughout our society, it’s not a two-way street.”

  5. In most casting/actors agencies there are files. As an actor, you get placed into a file based on what you LOOK like (race) and some offices even go into what you SOUND like. Now if you’re placed in the file that’s labeled, “Female Latino 20’s” you can most likely bank on never being seen for anything that is cast, for example as “Caucasian”. Strictly on the fact that you are in that “Latino” file and not the “Caucasian” file. I mean, why look in the “Latino” file if you have a nice full pile of “Caucasian”? It would take way too much time, creativity, and effort to look outside of the norm. Some do it, but not nearly as many as you would think or hope. The system by design is NOT creative. It’s pretty basic.

    So now you have this folder of “Female Latino 20’s” that actually may consist of some incredible leading talent but will never go in for the leading lady labeled as “Caucasian”. And THAT’S the problem. Most roles are written/typed out for Caucasians. So now the Latinas resume is not as credit solid as the Caucasians because there are LESS OPPORTUNITIES. Nothing to do with talent, just numbers. Think about it. If you have 15 auditions in a month and I have 1 audition in the month, it’s probably more likely that you’re going to book a job and not myself. But we are told, “Don’t fret! There are people that get through! I know a black person in the cast of Cinderella! He got through!”. No. That black person was added in for a diverse look. That black person was never taken seriously as a consideration for ANY OTHER ROLE other than, the black person in the ensemble. Prince Charming, was never going to be black, no matter how great he was.

    It’s true. There are exceptions that get into the room with the creative team for an actual audition. Those few are usually through personal recommendations or the occasional agent who though outside of the box, submitted their client, and casting thought, “why not send this one in for variety.” So, at most 1-3 non-traditional casting options get thrown in. As opposed to the dozens of traditional options that go in without a struggle, simply because they are in the most used file. THIS is a crappy way to seek out “the best” for the job. You just don’t get the best for the job. You get the best out of one folder of people. And not shockingly at all, those one folder of people are the people with the longer resumes, longer careers, most connections, and more money.

    I would just like to be put in more folders. Folders based on skill, talent, and body type… not just the color of my skin.

  6. Hey Kid, there are at least five actors in the show with middle eastern descent. Do your research first before you go off on a subject you don’t have all the full details too. Stop acting like a victim and move on.

      • where would you be able to look up there ethnicities in the first place? what research did you ask any of the actors of there background? personally interview any of them? just out of curiosity honey.

      • 1) The “best of your research” should have been better. Not that it matters, but there are actors of Middle Eastern descent in Aladdin, The Musical
        2) It is slightly ignorant to assume what was being pursued in the audition room. Unless you were there you have no idea. I would give Disney more credit in regards to their cultural awareness when it comes to a business model.

      • Jenny-

        1) The best of your research should have been better. There are actors of Middle Eastern descent in the show.

        2) Unless you were in the room during casting, you have zero idea as to what was being sought after. I think it would be wise to look at both sides and open yourself to the possibility that Middle Eastern actors were specifically being pursued.

        3) Re Disney: I would give the company more credit in regards to its cultural awareness when it comes to a sound business model given its long history on Broadway and the success casting ethnically diverse shows (“Aida” “Lion King” “Tarzan”).

        4) Did I mention that there are actors of Middle Eastern descent in Aladdin, The Musical?

        • i’m guessing you’re the same person as sammy1234, so you never answered the question–which actors in the show are of middle eastern descent? you keep saying that and criticizing the author’s research, but you haven’t shown how exactly you know better…

          also, i don’t know anyone who would credit disney with being “culturally aware.”

  7. I understand the concern and the point, but it’s acting…

    Are all of the actors in Les Mis French? Are all the actors in Book of Mormon or Lion King African? What about when someone in Hollywood uses an accent or changes their hair to look like something else.

    This is about having the best actors on stage to portray the story… if there was a middle-eastern actor that was better than the actors chosen, he/ she would have made the cast. Would you prefer they sacrifice the quality of the show JUST to have a middle-eastern actor? That would seem worse to me

      • There’s an easy socioeconomic answer there: more means = more opportunities to see and study theatre. Obviously there are rich minorities and poor white people, but one cannot separate class and race in this country, which is the underlying problem in almost every issue.

        • no. just because there are more white actors available doesn’t mean highly talented actors of color aren’t still out there itching to be cast. this is a really lazy excuse.

        • White-washing is always a problem but you might want to actually look at the incredibly diverse names on the cast list for Aladdin.

    • Yeah, I kind of agree with that statement that acting is about casting the right actor to tell the story. That gets us away from the looks of it/race etc and into the talent. But also, I understand sometimes someone can be really good in a role but the role calls for a really tall person or someone that really can look a specific way due to some specific things in the script, etc. But sometimes you can get an actor that can really play a role that is so different than his/her own personal background or looks cause they have the talent to do so. On the flip side, I see what the author is saying too cause I am middle eastern and I have faced frustrations of feeling like casting only sees you one way, so when something specifically middle eastern comes up, you feel like you want to be considered first.

      But there have been other cases where I get frustrated with why I can’t get cast in a particularly non-middle eastern role, even when I feel I’m talented enough and can pull off the character. So, not just in the shows where they require middle eastern actors specifically, but in a show where I can truly embody the emotional life of the character, that I can really bring the character to life in a unique and powerful way that the show calls for. That’s a frustration that I think anyone of any race can relate to. Casting can sometimes be very surface-y with things and judge by a cover. I think we’ve all been there. My thought is, create your own shows and act in them. Screw broadway. Any time it’s all about money and flashy shows, they cast in more formulaic ways and it’s about money, not the art.

  8. This doesn’t strike me as any different from casting Alfred Molina, an Englishman of Italian and Spanish descent, as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. I can appreciate the plight of all minorities who feel underrepresented, but this is a business where the performers’ job is to ACT. In this show, part of their job is to act Middle Eastern. It’s actually pretty similar to when a 30-year-old is asked to act like a 50-year-old, or when a homosexual is asked to play straight. Can (s)he do it? That’s up to the actor. An actor’s actual race, age, and sexual orientation is immaterial. Their job is to make the audience believe they are that character. Their job is not to be that character.

    • Schmuel, your point would hold up if casting directors, directors, and producers would cast Middle Eastern actors purely based on talent and cast them as “American” or “Caucasian” and just ask them to “act white”. But that almost never happens, so Middle Eastern actors are only considered when the role is specifically Middle Eastern. And those roles are so few and far between, so it’s frustrating when an entire show is specifically Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern actors were not sought out or cast.

      I do agree with your point in the sense that this is of no fault to any of the actors cast in Aladdin. They are hired to do a job and act the way they are told. I think the point this article is trying to make is geared toward the creative team, casting, and producers, not the actors currently in Aladdin.

      • There are no statistics (that I know of) to back up your statement that middle eastern actors almost never get cast as white Americans, so anything either of us offers on the subject is purely anecdotal. I can think of a very famous example of a middle eastern actor getting cast in a white role: Omar Sharif as Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl. So it does happen.

        • Hi Schmuel, here are the statistics of the 2011-2012 Broadway Season:

          “The AAPAC’s report found that African-American actors were cast in 16 percent of all roles, despite the fact that, according to 2010 U.S. Census data, they make up 23 percent of the city’s population. Hispanics were cast in three percent of all roles, despite representing roughly 29 percent of New York City. While 13 percent of the city is Asian-American, Asians comprised only three percent of roles on the city’s stages. Caucasians filled 77 percent of all roles, far outweighing their respective population size. Only 33 percent of New York City is white.”

          You’ll notice that these numbers only add up to 99%. The other 1% is where any other race falls into, including Middle Eastern.

          This quote is taken from this article, feel free to read more:

          • Those statistics are interesting, and they don’t tell us a thing about how many people of each race auditioned for each show. There is no way any of us can know statistics that would actually answer this question. Not that it matters — as Schmuel said, an actor’s race, age, and sexual orientation, are immaterial. As long as (s)he can believably portray the character, who cares if Adam Jacobs isn’t Middle Eastern or Paolo Szot isn’t French?

          • abraham–

            obviously it matters to people of color who aren’t getting cast in roles, that’s why people are talking about this in the first place. duh.

            i hate it when people say “it doesn’t matter” when obviously it matters to plenty of us, just not to you. if it doesn’t even matter to you, then your opinion is irrelevant.

  9. This article really spoke to me! I may be one of the millions of blond haired green eyed white actors in our community, but I have always appreciated and will always promote nontraditional casting. However, there is a fine line between making a positive statement and offending an entire cultural group. I am both suprised and not suprised by the casting choices for “Aladdin”. We’ve all seen the broadway community attempting to showcase the cultures of various ethnic groups around the world, but yet time and time again I’m reading articles such as this one. I also think there is some blame to be put on Disney. Disney is very particular about the “look” the actors have in their shows. I agree with your statement about the show becoming satirical by not having any representation of the Middle Eastern culture on or off the stage. It seems unfair to those of you who are from this culture to see people just as talented cast because well they can “pass” as Middle Eastern.

    • Thanks Edward! You’re absolutely right. The author does not say that this doesn’t happen, but says that when it does someone speaks up about it (whether its an article written, an organization speaking out, or a forum being held). In this case it seems like his/her disappointment is in the fact that it’s not being acknowledged (if that makes sense). That we accept it as a given.

      For me what I love is the overall diversity of this cast. There is a bevy of artists of color from many backgrounds represented (something you don’t see on Bway often or if you do perhaps the story itself deals with race).

      However, I can’t imagine a production of The Wiz with no Black people, In the Heights with no Latinos, or say Miss Saigon with no Asians so to a certain extent I understand the argument this person presents.

      Thanks for joining the convo! -SC

  10. As an artist of West and South Asian heritage, I totally hear you. We have seen case after case of production companies and decision-makers completely shutting out actors of color n production after production, even when the breakdowns specifically call for such. It is indeed troubling that the Alladin breakdowns didn’t call for such.

    However, another thing to think about is that maybe Middle Eastern artists don’t want to perform in Alladin. Perhaps Middle Eastern artists are tired of performing an Orientalist fantasy of what it means to be “Middle Eastern” to entertain audiences? Perhaps actors are refusing to submit themselves to another minstrel show while there are beautiful and moving stories of Middle Eastern culture and heritage that are waiting to be told? Perhaps the urgency to tell our own stories mean that we no longer want to dance and sign and wear our “ethnic drag” for the tourists? Maybe that’s okay.

    • Kayhan, I love your hopefulness and wish I shared it. But when all the Middle Eastern actors I know are either cast, even in “serious” shows, as stereotypical (the translators, the turbaned rebels, etc.) or just “ethnic” (so many have been cast as Hispanic characters…), I can’t imagine that they were offered parts and turned them down for ideological reasons. Arguably, visibility at ALL is still more subversive than total invisibility, even if playing stereotypes.

  11. As an African-American actress, I understand your plight. In one of my favorite movies, “Imitation of Life”, one of the characters is a light-skinned black woman who passes for white and she is played by a white actress. It’s ridiculous! Keep raising awareness about Aladdin. And so will I. It’s outrageous! Thank you for sharing this!

    • “Imitation of Life” is a fantastic film and you are so correct. They should have cast an actress with African heritage. Same goes for “Showboat”, both film versions, but especially the later film with Ava Gardner. Lena Horne would have made a stellar Julie.

    • First, I would say that Susan Kohner was not white–definately for 1959. She was half Mexican and half Jewish. A large issue is the idea of White. My Father is Italian and my Mother was half Italian and half mix of Scott, Dutch & Cherrokee—she would always say “I don’t know when we became white?” Neither of my Mother’s parents families accepted or acknowledged each other over ethnicity!

      The truth of acting is sale-ability. I believe a large part of that is skin color. Right or wrong, all races come in gradient shades to a fickle audience. Who do you think pays to see Disney Theater??? 40-60+ year old Middle Americans. Broadway is mostly for the visiting Tourist.

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