As a child raised in the video-on-demand era who also spent the first half of his life as a Walt Disney World pass holder, my 10-year-old Brooks was pretty clear on the specifics of the “Cinderella” story before we saw ArtCentric’s live version at Baltimore Center Stage last week. When it was over, I asked for a recap. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think he was coming for my job as a cultural critic.
“She gets raised nice at first, and then her mom dies and then her dad dies and her stepmom said she wasn’t her real daughter, and she was a maid or a butler to them now,” he said. “When she tried to go to the ball, her stepmother said ‘Nope! You stay here,’ and then they went to the ball and had a lot of fun. Cinderella sang a song and the mice were out, and basically the fairy godmother said, ‘What if this pumpkin turned into your carriage and these mice became your horses and you hop in and you ride?’ She goes to the ball, and the prince looks up and he’s like ‘Sheesh, she’s pretty beautiful. Can I take this dance with you?’ And she says ‘Yes, Sir!’ and they are staring at each other deeeep into their soul, but then she went running, and the prince kept her boot, or her slipper or whatever, like ‘Oh, no she left it!’”
Yeah, kid, that’s pretty much it. Well, there’s one other significant thing.
“Everybody was Black.”
ArtsCentric — a local organization with a “color-conscious” approach to both traditional and original work — based its take on the 1997 made-for-TV version starring pop star Brandy as the titular put-upon orphan turned princess, which is based off Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 television musical spectacular. That ABC/Disney production was notable not only because it was the first to star a Black actress, but because it was a recognition that all kids deserve to know their dream selves can wear their skin and their hair — that they are worthy of a fairy tale. I was 26 when it came on, but the little girl I used to be was grateful.
I heard that same wondrous, grateful sentiment in spring when myself and a group saw the live-action “The Little Mermaid” starring Halle Bailey as an Ariel with flowing red locs. It wasn’t just special to this new generation, but to the one that “grew up with Brandy as ‘Cinderella,’ so we thought nothing of [having] a Black princess,” as 30-year-old Baltimore resident Bukky Adey told me. Their fanciful imaginings were validated as children. They expect nothing less now. And that’s important.
Brandy’s “Cinderella” and the newer “The Little Mermaid” were cast multiethnically, with Black queens who had Filipino sons and families of beautiful mermaids of every conceivable origin. The ArtsCentric “Cinderella” takes that one step further, placing the French-created fairytale in an Afrofuturistic setting, taking inspiration from African textiles and accents and African American traditions like the jumping of the broom during weddings and party dances.
One of the stepsisters in the production even had a colorful wig that reminded of the fluffy cotton candy-like ones in Halle Berry’s 1997 movie “B.A.P.S.,” which stands for Black American Princesses. It bears noting that while that royal distinction for Berry’s round-the-way girl character was a joke, it came the same year that Brandy actually got to play a real princess. She was no joke.
In his director’s note in the program, ArtsCentric artistic director Kevin S. McAllister wrote that he was inspired by learning that the original “Cinderella” story dates back to an ancient tale of a Greek girl in love with an Egyptian king, proving that anyone could — and should — see themselves as worthy of being adored and revered. It’s more than just setting a Black princess in a generally Eurocentric kingdom; it’s seeing the royal and the magical reflected in the familiar, in the patterns and patois of home, or something like it.
In case McAllister needed verification his approach worked other than the rousing standing ovation at the performance I went to, let me add my own budding critic to the fray. “I was excited about it, because a lot of Disney movies mostly were white people back in the day, and they [Black people] didn’t get an opportunity to play an actual movie role,” Brooks said. “Right?”
It might not seem important what color a fictional character is, especially if you’re a person who has always seen ones that looked like you. But for a lot of kids, including my son, it’s the beginning of making a connection about who they are expected to be, how wide and high their sky can be. Brooks made the connection between the all-Black fairy tale and vacationing last year with friends in Jamaica, where almost everyone, from the tourists to the shopkeepers to the staff, looked like him.
“There were so many Black people. I was like, I feel honored, blessed, that there were so many Black people in one place, and it was chill,” he said of our Carribbean adventure. “It was like seeing the other ‘Cinderellas’ and I’m like ‘There’s not a lot of Black people,’ but there were in this one.”
The point of having a rainbow of beautiful skin colors and cultures presented as the everyday projection of our dreams is that it becomes normal to us. My son has grown up with both Peter Parker and Miles Morales as Spider-Man, and he loves them both. His superheroes can be white, or Afro-Latino, or they can be Norse gods or Hawaiian-descended sea princes. He expects the possibility that heroism and romance and happily ever after aren’t just for someone else. That’s all I want.
Your Cinderella doesn’t have to be Black. What’s important to me is that she can be.