For the first time since November 2019, middle school students are returning to the stage to present a musical theater performance in front of a live audience. This weekend, 22 seventh and eighth grade students will perform Aladdin Jr., a 60-minute version of the Broadway production of Aladdin written specifically for middle school performers. The performance is directed by first-time Nueva musical director Maggie Cole, who is the founder of theater production company The Green Room.
“When planning for this year’s musical, I wanted to see if we could have the production in person,” said Middle School Division Head Karen Tiegel. “This is a really big community-building event that allows our students who love to sing and dance to come together with like-minded peers. Maggie’s philosophy is about having fun together as a cross-grade group, which is a piece that students really missed during COVID.”
Aladdin—which tells the story of an impoverished boy in the fictional city of Agrabah who discovers a magical lamp with a genie inside who grants him three wishes—is based on a Middle Eastern folktale, though the well-known 1992 Disney version upon which the theater production is based has come under fire for its depictions of Middle Eastern and South Asian culture and people. After Aladdin was selected, with input from middle school students, cast members immediately recognized the problematic aspects of the performance and asked to meet with Director of Social Justice and Equity Alegria Barclay.
“The original Disney Aladdin story fuses South Asian and Middle Eastern culture in an attempt to provide representation for all brown people, while actually providing representation for none,” said eighth grader Anika G. “For example, the palace looks like the Taj Mahal, and some names are drawn upon from Indian languages, but the original story is from Arabian Nights, and has many Persian influences. Being ethnically ambiguous only creates confusion for children of color when they realize this story does not accurately represent either culture, and attempts to equate them. The musical also involves some stereotypes about people of color in some of the original animation and in the junior dialogue. It also involves some appropriation of religiously significant clothing, such as the turban.”
During the cast’s meeting with Alegria, the group discussed the misrepresentation of cultures and religions.
“We talked about what lines and words could be removed from the script,” Alegria said. “For several students, this musical brought up ethical and moral concerns. I recommended that, in presenting the musical, they name that Aladdin is a problematic musical, and share that they have sought to create greater understanding and conversation about some of the ways the musical is both beloved and problematic and how to hold both of those things.”
Through their conversations, and with Maggie’s support, the students edited lines in the script, lyrics in the songs, set designs, and costumes to be more culturally inclusive.
“We have done our best to remove any possibly offensive lines and to rewrite them,” Anika wrote in the program opener. “Our cast has also chosen to use aspects of multiple cultures so as not to erase any culture, and to source authentic clothing. We have focused on not appropriating cultures we are not part of, and to not disrespect or misuse anything with religious significance. We’ve also actively received input from South Asian and Middle Eastern community members.”
While the students have made changes to the performance, they have also been able to shine a light on the need for Nueva to have a more robust vetting process of future musical and play performances.
“We recognize the need for a better vetting process going forward,” Karen said. “When choosing a musical to perform, we want to choose something that feels inclusive and builds community. Many musicals have problematic elements to them, as Aladdin does, so we want to also find ways to address those problematic elements in a thoughtful way. Students have modeled for the adults how to use their revisions to Aladdin as an opportunity to change the story so it reflects our community’s values. And they have shown us how we can create a better plan for the future by creating a more inclusive vetting process.”
Alegria echoed Karen’s sentiments.
“I have been really impressed with the students, with their astute criticisms, their willingness to hold themselves accountable on how not to perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation, and their drive to take real steps,” she said. “The students have felt empowered that they have a voice and need to be heard.”
Maggie has also helped to create an environment in which the students’ voices are valued and their concerns are addressed.
“I want to acknowledge Maggie’s openness to working with our students,” Karen added. “Maggie has created an opportunity that feels collaborative and has a deep community feel.”
Parents have also had a number of opportunities to get involved, which has allowed them to have a behind-the-scenes view of putting the play together.
“Under the amazing guidance and instruction of Maggie and her team, the students have really been able to stretch themselves and learn so much about the art of theater and theater production,” said parent and volunteer Wayee Chu.
After all of the work the students have put in over the last few months—from memorizing lines, learning songs, and painting sets to wrestling with big questions around depictions of culture—there is a feeling of deep pride amongst all involved heading into the weekend of performances.
“I am really excited for a lot of my friends to see me perform, as I have discussed this musical and my outside dance classes with them but they have never seen me perform anything,” Anika said. “I love all the gorgeous costumes and sets, and getting to do stage makeup. And I love doing in-person singing and acting. It's been so much fun getting to know everyone in the cast better, and to spend time with all of them.”
Reflecting on the efforts of the students, Maggie noted how the musical is a highly student-created production—students helped make choices about the content, costuming, set painting, and even designing and running lights.
“The students have really made this show their own,” she said. “It’s been wonderful watching their confidence and creativity blossom over the past couple of months and I’m looking forward to helping them share their work of art with their family and friends this weekend.”
“I am blown away by the hard work of all the students,” Wayee said. “The incredible contributions and hard work from all the students, across all the important functions that contribute to a great theater production, has been the most impressive to me.”
Anika added, “I'm really going to miss the show when it's over. It's been so fun.”