"When someone comes to see Aladdin, they see a brown kid taking the last bow and saving the day and beating the bad guy and getting the girl. It paints a picture of Indian Americans...who may not normally get fair representation in the media...as just as deserving of that spotlight as your average white American.”
The actor currently taking that final bow in the long-running Disney musical is Michael Maliakel, a first generation Indian American from New Jersey, in his Broadway debut. The performer’s Playbill bio concludes with the words “Representation matters.” It’s also hashtagged in his Instagram bio. And he means it.
“I think you hear the phrase so much
now that it’s just sort of started to feel like a buzzword, but for me it is so much more
than that. It’s about having the visibility in
spaces that people who are underrepresented can look to for inspiration, for motivation,
and to feel seen. But beyond that, almost
more importantly for me, it’s about identifying and putting on display the full humanity
of underrepresented folks, so that people
who may come from communities that are
pretty homogenous can identify people that
don’t look like them and know that there is
so much in common with these people,”
“We’ve got these horrible strings of hate crimes, and I think part of that comes from the othering of people that don’t look like us. I think it’s a big responsibility on the part of the media and the entertainment industry to kind of shape people’s understanding of underrepresented folks to really portray people as fully fleshed out humans...as people who deserve love and respect."
The pandemic-forced hiatus proved for many in the industry to be a period of reflection and commitment to inclusion and diversity. When Agrabah—the fictional city at the center of Aladdin, a mish- mash of cultural inspirations drawn from South Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East—returned to Broadway with two Indian Americans in the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine (Shobha Narayan starred as Jasmine alongside Maliakel’s Aladdin), the production made a few changes to better reflect the culture of its two lead actors.
“Some of those things may seem really subtle on the page, but we were able to influence the overall flavor of the piece that just makes everything sparkle a bit more and brings a next level of authenticity and respect to the cultures that inspire the story.”
Some of the gestures in the Bollywood-inspired dances have been sharpened to bring more traditional Indian specificity to the choreography. Some jokes in the script that might have been construed as outdated or disrespectful have been updated. And the pronunciation of Agrabah has been changed (now with an “ah” sound on the first syllable) to be more authentic to the way people from that area of the world would say it.
“It’s been really great to see the openness on the part of our creative team to bring Shoba’s and my lived experiences as Indian Americans, and to bring our cultures into the piece. It’s more than just putting bodies on the stage to fill these roles. It’s to respect the traditions and cultures. I was really encouraged by that. “
But when speaking of representation and opportunity in theatre, things can get a little complicated. “It’s sort of a tricky thing for BIPOC actors to answer that question of dream roles. There have been so few that have been written specifically for people that look like me.”
“Ultimately, the dream would be to get to put my stamp on a role that was written with me in mind.”