When the #OscarsSoWhite controversy took the internet by storm in 2016, highlighting the lack of nominations for people of color at the prestigious film awards, the conversations on representation quickly became the hot-button topic in media. But as with many hashtag movements, the people of the internet were quick to move on the next viral injustice.
But in the theater world, change is still happening. As actress Alysia Noelle Beltran points out, in the same year as the Oscars controversy, all four Tony Awards for best actor or actress in a musical were given to people of color.
Beltran, who is currently playing Esmeralda in Bay Area Musicals’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” cited this moment as an affirmation that she was in the right place at the right time. As she told The Daily Californian in an interview, “It’s an exciting time to be a part of the performing arts (and) to be a part of this new revolution.”
During the 2016 Tony season, she saw shows such as “On Your Feet!” and “Hamilton” shake up Broadway conventions. But while the theater industry may have been rapidly increasing its diversity, the change had been a long time coming.
At a young age, Beltran was armed with a love of performing, and her mom soon put her in musical theater classes. But being part Latinx and part Filipino while growing up on Rodgers and Hammerstein classics such as “Oklahoma!” and “Cinderella,” she never really imagined herself onstage. It wasn’t until she watched “Rent,” the 2005 film based on the hit rock musical, and saw Mimi Marquez belting out rock ballads that she noticed a complex role for a woman of color.
“I’m not used to seeing brown girls being these women of power in a movie,” Beltran commented. “It was nice to see a woman who looked like me on the screen.”
Emboldened by the role of Mimi, Beltran continued performing throughout college, realizing eventually that she wanted to pursue it professionally. Being able to play Esmeralda — a kind, resourceful and independent character made for a woman of color — was a role that Beltran didn’t even dream of until the the premiere of “Aladdin” on Broadway a few years back. Only after its widespread success did she realize there was a place for people like her on the professional stage, especially coming from the Disney family.
“The majority of the Disney canon for so long (was) pale little white girls,” she commented. “I had a hard time seeing myself becoming any of these characters. … It was just unconventional to think that such a title Disney character could be played by a brown girl.”
Beltran recently did a workshop in New York for a new Latinx musical, “Sincerely, Mom,” with some of the original cast members from “On Your Feet!” and “In the Heights,” where they talked about how representation matters on Broadway, especially in today’s times.
Although the success of shows with multicultural casts such as “Aladdin” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was paving the way for diversity onstage, it hasn’t been without its own controversy. When the runaway hit “Hamilton” posted a casting call for “non-white” actors, it was criticized for reverse racism and exclusionary casting. When discussing the issue, Beltran highlighted the irony of the controversy.
“But for so many decades, it was people of color getting typecasted out of casting calls, like, instantly, just because maybe our skin was a little pigmented, like in the teensiest bit,” Beltran said.
With progress quick to be criticized, is theater still an effective medium to push for diversity? Despite growing up without many multicultural roles to look up to, Beltran still believes so. Perhaps it’s the intimate experience of a live performance that is able to truly connect to the audience.
“SF Playhouse likes to say (the theater) is like an empathy gym where you get to just grow a little bit more love for someone that you might not understand but you get to witness onstage. And I think theater is the perfect place to be spearheading this representation battle,” Beltran said.
As for her role as Esmeralda, Beltran hopes to bring the character’s empathy and kindness to the audience and for the musical to carry out a message of acceptance.
“I think the one true message that I want people to be taking away is to love someone a little harder … someone you might not have encountered before,” Beltran enthused. “I think it is the perfect place to gain an understanding for different people.”
Contact Julie Lim at [email protected].