Shoba Narayan first faced the limits of being a South Asian woman in musical theater when she was only 13.
Her school had decided to stage a production of The Wizard of Oz, and Narayan told her friends she wanted to try out for the role of Dorothy. It wouldn’t happen, her classmates responded, because “Dorothy isn’t brown.”
“I realized during that experience how much representation mattered at that time and I realized how much my ethnicity played a role in my participation in theater,” Narayan said.
The experience was a “turning point,” said Narayan, and put her down a path of fighting for lead 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 mattered in the arts. Growing up in Bryn Mawr, Pa., her parents, both Indian immigrants with a deep passion for music, supported Narayan through classes for ballet and an Indian dance called Bharatanatyam. They drove her to musical auditions and watched the one-woman performances she put on every evening at home.
Once, they hosted renowned Indian musicians Anoushka Shankar and her father, Ravi Shankar. After Narayan saw Anoushka play the sitar, it inspired her to learn violin.
“There was this strong, talented, young woman who was so incredible at sitar,” Narayan said. “I picked up the next best thing, which was violin, and that was very much so inspired by her.”
After graduating from the Boston Conservatory at 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 in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and she made history in that show in 2017 as the first South Asian woman in a lead role on Broadway since Bombay Dreams in 2004.
Narayan then starred as Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton and was Nessarose in Wicked before taking the role of Princess Jasmine in September 2021. She stars alongside Michael Maliakel, who is making history of his own as the show’s 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 prior to Narayan, Courtney Reed and Arielle Jacobs, are both of partial Asian descent. But Narayan has brought certain changes to the show that reflect her South Asian background.
“I spoke to Disney about some lines that could be shifted to be made a little bit more sensitive to the audience that may come in. They’re small shifts, but I think it will make broader audiences feel welcomed,” she said.
For example, Aladdin is set in a kingdom named Agrabah. In the show, it was often pronounced with an “a” sound like “apple,” rather than an “ah” sound like “olive.” Agrabah, of course, is 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 that reflected in the show.
Narayan said she also tweaked some of the choreography that was inspired by Bollywood dance to make it more specific.
“Things like that, I wanted to make sure while I’m in the show, how can I help audiences who may be from our background feel a little bit more like they’re being represented properly,” 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 celebrating Diwali last November. In a pre-show address to the audience, Narayan talked about the significance of the festival of lights 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, to kind of bring the two parts of myself together was a very emotional thing for me to do,” 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’s been a heightened commitment from decision makers on Broadway to expand diversity and representation both on and off the stage. With the Asian American community in particular, that progress has sometimes been slow.
Data from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, which tracks representation on all New York city stages, 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. AAPAC’s 2018-2019 data, the most recent available, shows 93.6% of producers are white, 93.8% of directors are white and 89% of writers are white.
Over the years, there’s been very little growth for Asian American performers, and even smaller growth for Middle East and North African, or MENA, performers. In the past, Aladdin has specifically come under criticism for the lack of inclusion 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 also are, to a certain extent, Arabic names,” said Nandita Shenoy, an actor and playwright in New York who is also a steering committee member at AAPAC.
“If you’re presenting the rainbow, the one color from the rainbow that isn’t there is the one that’s 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 kind of just saying, are you living the values that you say?”
For Narayan, shows like Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, and Hamilton were especially big wins because her roles were not specifically for Asian actors.
“An effort was made to put a diverse cast on stage, no matter what the role was,” Narayan said of Hamilton. Since the movement for racial justice in the summer of 2020, she added, there have been even more conversations on representation when it comes to casting.
It’s part of the reason why she was “elated” at the chance to play Princess Jasmine.
“She’s an animated character, she’s not even real, but she means so much to me, just in the way she was portrayed as strong and smart. She had the guts to question authority at a time when that was not normal,” Narayan said.
“We didn’t have a lot of that kind of a 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.”