'Little Mermaid' actress shines a light on colorblind casting

PHOTO: Diana Huey as ArielMark Kitaoka
Diana Huey as Ariel

Diana Huey has been singing her heart out as Ariel in the national tour of Disney’s musical “The Little Mermaid” for the past nine months, but now she’s found herself in a different kind of spotlight -- speaking out as a Japanese-American after facing online backlash criticizing her casting in a classic and beloved role, which many see as white.

Just minutes after the announcement poster of Huey as Ariel was revealed in Seattle in 2016, a viewer commented, “‘Since when is Ariel Asian? I love “Little Mermaid,” but I won’t be going to see this. Keep it classic,’” Huey recalled.

PHOTO: Diana Huey as ArielMark Kitaoka
Diana Huey as Ariel

Since that moment in November, Huey swore off social media, but the negativity resurfaced in Memphis when she found the comments section filled with hateful remarks while watching a video that another cast member posted on Facebook.

Though she didn’t want to let the negativity affect her, those words stuck, sending her into a panic just minutes before she was to hit the stage.

“It was like falling down a rabbit hole. I’ve forgotten this is was a thing, that I’m a controversy and I’m upsetting to people,” she said.

Huey powered through the performance and credited her ability to cope with her struggles to the undying support from her family, friends and fellow cast members, including the show’s director Glenn Casale.

One of the positive things that emerged from Huey’s experience, Casale said, is the opening of conversations about diversity and a sometimes controversial practice: colorblind casting.

Known for this practice, in which casting does not factor in an actor’s race or ethnicity, Casale has had decades of directing experience in TV, movies and theater. And he says he’s dealt with a fair share of less than friendly reviews regarding his casting decisions.

“I don’t think of color or race. I think in terms of talent and what he or she can bring to the role,” he said when explaining his casting process. For years, Nikki Rene Daniels, an African-American actress, played Belle in his production of “Beauty and the Beast,” and Paul Schoeffler, a Caucasian actor, played the Siamese king in his production of “The King and I.”

Though the practice can be thorny, he admitted, when used correctly, he feels it’s an effective and visible way to combat the lack of diversity onstage, said Casale.

He pointed to the award-winning musical “Hamilton” as a successful example of a conscious choice to cast people of color to play the country’s prominent white historical figures to make a social and political statement.

While there’s been an increase in efforts by directors and producers to cast nontraditionally — from Broadway and West End stages like “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” to the silver screen in blockbusters like “Star Wars: Rogue One” — some decisions are met with mixed responses.

“It’s a sort of a double-edged sword … and there are a lot of gray lines, but the lack of opportunities for Asian-Americans in the industry is drastically less than most others,” the level of playing field was never the same, Huey clarified.

While nontraditional casting creates much-needed opportunities for minority actors, some people consider it a betrayal of the character or cultural appropriation.

Some of Huey’s fellow actors and actresses have shared similar stories with ABC News about positive experiences of breaking racial barriers onstage. For example, Don Darryl Rivera, a Filipino actor who plays Iago in “Aladdin” (which is produced by Disney, the parent company of ABC News) on Broadway, told ABC News the magical moments he encountered when he was greeted by audience members.

“Complete strangers would come up and tell me how proud they are of me because we are of the same blood. How incredible is that?” he said.

However, they said the racial issues that followed were undeniable. This has caused actors like Raymond Lee, who portrays Ralph in “Groundhog Day” on Broadway, and Alex Chester, a mixed-race actress and a producer of “We So Hapa,” to believe there’s no such thing as colorblind casting. Since prejudice still exists among audience members and in the casting process, for them, “color conscious” is the more accurate term.

In Huey’s case, though, Casale insisted that he cast her as Ariel for a very simple reason: She was the best for the part.

“Diana’s voice and acting were perfect. She has an innocence that’s just right for Ariel,” he said.

For Casale and many others, the fact that there’s outcry over an Asian-American actress playing a mythical creature seems absurd. “On the same stage, an African-American actor plays Sebastian the crab, and Ursula is blue … and I haven’t heard from any Smurfs,” he added jokingly.

Despite the blowback, what fuels Huey’s love of performing are the connection to the audience and the opportunity to inspire younger viewers.

She witnessed the importance of representation when she met an adopted Asian-American girl a week after the Memphis show and saw how much it meant to her family to see someone who resembles their daughter playing such a beloved character.

“These kids just see Ariel when they look at me, even after I’ve taken off my costume,” she said, adding that kids aren’t born with prejudice, so it’s important to deliver content that makes a world without racism and bigotry the norm for them.

Now she’s living out a dream by playing an iconic role she never thought was possible.

After her audition, the thought of an expected rejection came so naturally that it made her realize how upsetting it is to be in a situation “where you believe you won’t achieve something simply because of how you look and who you are.”

She wrote in a recent Facebook post, “As I go out on the road, city to city as an Asian-American playing Ariel, I hope that it will inspire the next person who is out there auditioning for something to believe that they can be cast in a role based on their work and their talents.”

We all need to give the issue of representation the complexity it deserves, she said, but “I want to believe that we can truly have equality in this world — and the arts are a damn good place to start.”

“The Little Mermaid” is licensed by Disney and produced by Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight. Disney is the parent of company of ABC.