Catching Up With Aladdin's Hapa Leading Ladies Courtney Reed And Arielle Jacobs
"THIS IS A STORM, AND YOU ARE THE SKY"
By Matthew Blank
When we set out to create an online publication largely indicative of the Hapa experience as we know it, the endeavor struck me as something both invitingly pure and treacherously deceptive. Having grown up in a very diverse part of the country (Silicon Valley) and having only spent my adult life in San Diego and New York City, I always found myself in the middle of some manner of melting pot and was always able to at least HALF-fit in.
As a child and teen, my environment was overwhelmingly Asian, so I benefited from the influence of my mother’s side of the family, which is Mainland Chinese. Having spent the majority of my working life in New York theatre… well let’s not kid ourselves… my Euro-Jewish “other side of the coin” certainly helped me become relatable there. For a good many years, I was the only heterosexual person of color under the age of 40 on my entire team at work. But I could always hold my own when sharing "funny Jewish relative" stories, same as I've got an arsenal of truly ridiculous "Asian kid" stories.
Sit me down with Larry David or Eddie Huang, Howard Stern or David Choe... and I'm equally unwanted.
As for those few years in San Diego, well let’s just say that when I get a decent bronze going, I still get people walking up to me speaking Spanish.
But, having now met countless Hapas who didn't have the same Opportunity For Community, I became aware of just how divisive and challenging a distinction that word can be. Not every part of the world is as open to people of any sort of “Otherness,” and as Hapa, no matter how green is your valley, you are “Other” much of the time.
Part of what we endeavor to do here is to give a voice to the marginally voiceless, or at the very least allow our own experiences to shine forth as something for readers to relate to, wonder about, or simply store away for another day.
Today, we talk to two performers I’ve admired for years, before even fully recognizing them as Hapa. These are two of the most talented, hard-working women in musical theatre. While they certainly had different experiences in their respective paths, they have found themselves sharing common ground fairly often, most notably in the shoes of a Disney Princess. Quite a long journey from childhoods necessarily met with with some level of bullying, self-doubt, or simple “not fitting in.”
Courtney Reed and Arielle Jacobs are two performers to know. They both tough-ed the long road to Broadway, only to find themselves sharing the stage in the barrio of In the Heights. Reed would go on to originate the role of Princess Jasmine in Broadway’s Aladdin. A few years later, Jacobs (who happens to be the sister of Reed’s “Prince Ali,” Adam Jacobs) would travel to the other side of the globe to play the role in the Australian premiere.
For this launch, as I looked into my career in theatre and the discovery of my own personal brand of Hapa-ness, I could think of no two greater people to feature for their fascinating and inspirational stories.
Meet the Hapa Jasmines!
Going all the way back, where were you born and raised? How did your parents meet and what did they do for a living? Do you have siblings and are they also performers?
Reed: I was born and raised in Elgin, IL! My parents met in Grad School. My dad went to Thailand for the peace corps before grad school and was keeping up with his Thai by auditing a class, and my mom was basically teaching the class! I have a younger brother and older sister and neither of them are performers.
Jacobs: I was born in Laguna Beach, CA, and then raised in Half Moon Bay (just south of San Francisco). My parents met in a hospital. My dad was there to sell Xerox computers and my mom was working there as a nurse. He saw her walk out of an elevator, dressed in white (well… in a nurse’s lab coat), and he says that it was love at first sight.
When did you get involved in theatre? First onstage role? When did you get the sense that it was something you could and would do for a living?
Reed: When I was six, I played a mouse in Cinderella! It wasn't until I played Annie when I was a little older that I knew I wanted to be an actress.
Jacobs: I started singing really young in the local church choir. I told my mom that I wanted to be a singer, like Whitney Houston, and she found a voice teacher for me in San Francisco. Her name was Teddy Lightfoot, and she also happened to manage a song and dance troupe for kids called “The Razzle Dazzle Kids.”
I fell in love with it, and convinced my brother Adam to join too. We both performed with that group all around the Bay Area for years. I wasn’t sure that I could do it for a living until I was in high school. Even then, I wasn’t sure if this is what I wanted to do with my life. I thought about going to college to study Environmental Science. But then my acceptance letter to NYU’s music department solidified my future.
Let's dive right into the theme of this publication! What is your ethnic background? Do you have a large extended family/influences on both sides? What do you feel you take away most from your individual Asian and Caucasian sides of the family? Cuisines, values?
Reed: My mother was born and raised in Thailand, however she is ethnically Vietnamese. I identify more with the Thai culture. I have learned so much from both my Caucasian side and Vietnamese side. We ate mostly Thai dishes growing up. My grandmother and mother are EXCELLENT cooks!
Jacobs: My mother is Filipina, and my father is Caucasian (specifically Russian, Polish, Dutch, and Spanish). Both sides of my family have very strong musical inclinations. My mother (and her sister and her father) all have beautiful singing voices.
My paternal grandmother was a cabaret singer in the 1940s. As a teenager, she was chosen to perform on tour with the Tommy Dorsey Band, but her mom wouldn’t let her go. She was replaced by an unknown performer named Frank Sinatra. Well, his career turned out… the way you know it turned out. Although she was devastated, she continued to sing and always supported our dreams too.
In a way, my brother and I feel like we are living out her dream for her. Both sides of my family have always been really big on food and music, actually. My Filipina grandmother was always trying to feed us nonstop. And my Jewish grandmother made the best matzo ball soup and noodle kugel.
From both sides, we learned about hard work, dedication, and discipline. And how to have fun along the way.
Do you find that you identify more strongly with one side? Personally, since my mother is 2nd generation, and very much an American girl, it was definitely more legwork for me to forge a relationship with my Chinese heritage.
Reed: I have always identified more as Asian than Caucasian. However I am shaped by both the influence of my mother and father. I think the reason I have always felt more "Asian," is the way people perceived me. It is quite strange when you think about it. I should be seen just as much Caucasian as Asian. However our society does not work that way.
Jacobs: I’ve definitely found it more challenging to connect to my Filipino heritage. My mother was actually raised in Okinawa, Japan, attended American schools, and then moved to the U.S. at age 12. She was encouraged to only speak English. I don’t know any of my relatives that still live in the Philippines, and I don’t speak Tagalog. I wish that I did, and I’m hoping to learn it one day.
I would love to travel to the Philippines and gain a stronger connection to that side of my family history, to see where my family originated, and perhaps perform there with my brother. I’m proud to be pinay because Filipinos celebrate family, music, food, and community. They root for each other’s successes, and have a strong resilience and optimism, no matter what challenges they face.
The word "Hapa" was part of my vocabulary at a very young age, and being from the SF Bay Area, I was very lucky to have Hapa classmates and friends of all races. Tell me about your experience growing up. Was race an issue or cause of challenge and/or pain as a child/teen?
Reed: I remember struggling with my ethnicity in Elementary school. I was made fun of. Kids would call me "Chinese," and slant their eyes and laugh. I knew how ignorant they were even at a young age.
Jacobs: I attended Catholic school in San Mateo, CA, and my class was very racially diverse. I never felt “different” or experienced any challenges because of my race. I know that makes me very lucky, and perhaps I grew up in a unique bubble.
I did experience bullying and “kids being kids.” At the time, I learned that it’s not safe to trust people who you thought were your friends. I learned that it’s safer to not trust anybody. It took years to overcome this negative thinking.
I teamed up with my friend Lexi Lawson (currently starring as Eliza in Hamilton on Broadway) and we started an organization called the “Girls Camaraderie Project,” to help middle-school girls learn to trust each other and support each other. I’ve found that there are lots of organization to empower young girls and help them to believe in themselves, but not many that aim to help them feel safe and supported in the company of other young women.
Inevitably, we encounter a lot of people who are curious "what we are?" I tend to think it's harmless curiosity 99 percent of the time, and I'm happy to share that information. Does the question bother you at all? I get all kinds of guesses... usually Latin, Greek, Italian. What do you get most often?
Reed: Hahaha… it's actually one of my favorite games to play! "What do you THINK I am?" I get everything! Mostly Latina, and sometimes Hawaiian!
Jacobs: I get this question ALL the time. It doesn’t bother me. People usually think I’m Latina and often speak to me in Spanish based on their assumption that I am. I speak a bit of Spanish so I can get by, but they are usually surprised when they figure it out.
How has race played into your theatrical careers? Collectively you’ve played Latin, Middle Eastern, Witch, Mamma Mia! Greek islander. In a sense, being "of color" allows you to pass for a variety of racial types that you actually aren't. But I'm sure it's been limiting at times, too. Have there been specific times where you've lost out on opportunities for not having the right look?
Reed: Oh boy. This is a hard question! In so many ways my ethnicity has given me an advantage, especially on stage! However being mixed is not very popular in television right now. They want you to be 100% of that ethnicity or at least look it. I have lost out on roles for Latina women because they ask what my ethnicity actually is. Here's a not-so-fun fact: in my entire career I have auditioned for my actual ethnicity ONCE. She was a half-Vietnamese girl that worked in a nail salon! Go figure.
Jacobs: YES! I’ve lost out on a lot of opportunities for not being ethnic “enough” or not being truly Latina, or fully Asian, or being fluent in Spanish, or being from the Middle East, or from the Polynesian islands.
Times are changing and producers are feeling pressured to cast actors who fit the ethnicity of the characters. This is wonderful for those actors who fit the bill. And a huge hurdle for an actress who isn’t 100% of any ethnicity.
Arielle whatever the path, you've clearly enjoyed the chance to play some really amazing roles, including originating the role of Jasmine in the Australian production of Aladdin. I loved the video of you and Adam surprising your parents with the news you had booked it. Tell me about your path with the show, the audition process. Where were you when you learned you got the job? Did they really have no idea you were up for the gig?
Jacobs: I had auditioned years ago for the Seattle version of Aladdin, before Adam and Courtney were chosen to do that out-of-town tryout production. And then I didn’t audition again until they were casting for the Australian production. My agent asked if I’d be interested in going to Australia, I said yes, and then she set up an audition for the associate director.
Then I had a callback the following week for the director, Casey Nicholaw, and the rest is history. My brother and I planned to do the special video revealing the news to my parents, but we weren’t seeing them until a month later. I was so excited and wanted to tell them so badly, so keeping my mouth shut during that time was the hardest part.
For this feature we're also speaking to your fellow-Hapa Jasmine counterparts! Have you two worked together before? I don't recall if you did In The Heights at the same time, but I definitely saw Arielle as Nina and Courtney as Carla at some point...
Reed: HAHA why yes! We actually were doing In The Heights together when I booked the first reading of Aladdin! Arielle is extremely talented, and I may or may not have given her high praise to our director when they were casting Jasmine for Australia :-) She is beyond talented and a shoe-in for the role!
Jacobs: I love Courtney! Yes, it was very important to me that I had my own unique take of Jasmine. I did the whole rehearsal process as if this was a brand new script for me, and I had to find my own discoveries and create my own backstory. My favorite part of the show was the magic carpet ride, and hearing the audience gasp audibly when they first see it fly. That part was always magical for me, plus I love singing that song!
We worked together in the closing cast of In The Heights on Broadway. I played Nina, and she played Carla. And we’ve performed together at many of the 54 Below Broadway Princess Party concerts. We’ve never compared notes about playing Princess Jasmine, except about how much we both enjoy the role!
Courtney, Aladdin has surely been quite an experience for you! What keeps you there several years later, while many of your co-stars have left for other projects? How would you describe your take on and relationship with the character, and what is your favorite moment for her?
Reed: I don't get sick of things that I'm in love with very often. I've always been like that! My favorite color has been magenta for a long as I can remember. Britney Spears will always be idol, and I could eat a Subway sandwich every day for the rest of my life and never get sick of it! Hahaha!
I have a history of staying with my Broadway shows for a long period of time. I find it funny when there’s a stigma to staying with a long-running show. If we worked a 9-5 we could stay with the same job for 30 years at least! If you think of it that way, three three years doesn't seem so long!
In all seriousness, Jasmine is my DREAM role. I enjoy playing her onstage, but a lot of the offstage influence you have playing such a strong female character is worth more than any praise you might get for playing her onstage. My nieces came to the show for the first time a little while back, and I couldn't have been more honored being able to embody this character. I would be proud to think that they would look up to someone like Jasmine.
Arielle, how did you enjoy your time in Sydney, and did you find the audiences there to be noticeably different from those in the States? What was your single greatest takeaway from your time there and in the world of Aladdin?
Jacobs: Living and working in Sydney, Australia, was the greatest 6 months of my life. I fell in love with the country and the people. I found them to be so present and warm, supportive and playful. But most of the audiences didn’t come to stage door, so we rarely signed autographs.
Perhaps they didn’t know that they could. The stage door atmosphere was very different than the Broadway after-show experience.
And you've previously said that you love “creepy" ideas when it comes to dream casting roles for you and Adam. Eva and Che has been discussed! Any new ideas for your inevitable onstage debut together? Anything in the works?
Jacobs: Well, I wouldn’t say that we love “creepy ideas,” but it’s hard to find roles we could play together that wouldn’t be super creepy because we are siblings. We are still looking for the right show to do together.
In the meantime, we are getting ready to do our sibling cabaret show again, called Sibling Disobedience: Breaking the Rules On The Way To The Great White Way on November 20 in San Francisco!
Have you ever run into any blowback or criticism when you've played races that you are not? For not actually being Latin or Middle Eastern. You don't see a lot of roles written specifically for half-Asian performers. Nevermind the fact that the original tale of Aladdin was based on Asia!
Reed: Yes, I did receive a lot of backlash for not actually being Middle Eastern. I had a girl even tweet me saying, "How dare you say you identify with Jasmine when you're not even Middle Eastern." This is so wrong on so many levels. You don’t have to be any specific ethnicity in order to identify with anyone. She had pulled a quote from me saying that I really identified with Jasmine because she was the first ethnic princess and the fact that I actually felt like I could look like her. I mean she had long black hair… that was good enough for me. All of the other princesses had brown, blonde, and red hair.
I was extremely hurt by her comment. I have girls tell me how much they have loved Jasmine and how she was always their favorite Disney princess, and she didn't have blonde hair and blue eyes. You should always be free to admire and identify with anyone you like.
Jacobs: I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never received criticism for not being the same race as the character I’m playing… yet… but I know that could change. I did, however, cause a stir in the online community in Australia when Disney announced my casting as Jasmine. Some people were upset that they didn’t cast locally for the role. Once I was there actually performing, that cooled off, and I was always treated nicely by everyone I met.
Changing directions, since there will inevitably be a heavy culinary/lifestyle/fashion presence on this site... any favorite recipes from your Hapa upbringing? Or just on the day to day, what are the foods you can't go without? Favorite restaurants in NYC or other cities you frequent? Are you a big fashion person, and who are you style icons?
Reed: Well I'm a huge fan of my grandmother and mother’s cooking! This makes it very hard for me to eat out anywhere that serves Thai food. Lol! My favorite meal is probably Beef Larb with sticky rice! Mmmm!
I am super into fashion! Some of my style icons as far as red carpet looks go are: Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, and J.LO!
Jacobs: I love mango. My Filipino grandpa does, too. He has this joke that he repeats whenever I see him. “Why do men love mango? Because, it makes the man Go!”
I think he means that it gives him energy… not that it makes him go to the bathroom. Haha!
My favorite restaurants in NYC are Yum Yum Bankok Thai restaurants, and Takashi for ramen, and Kodama for sushi. I also love vegetarian Cafe Blossom.
And yes, I love fashion, but no one in particular. My vibe has been called “tribal chic” or “Laura Croft Tombraider Chic.” Bohemian, yet tough, and still graceful.
Arielle, you recently made your 54 Below solo debut. I remember you first solo show years back at the Triad, where you spoke very candidly about your health and relationship issues. Tell me a little about your most recent show, and how things are with you in those departments. Will you be reprising it anytime soon?
Jacobs: My recent solo show at 54 Below called A Leap in the Dark is about to come out on iTunes and Amazon, via Broadway Records! This will be my debut solo album, and the album is the entirety of my show, with the monologues and songs, too.
I spoke a lot about my journey from growing up in a small farm town in the Bay Area, to getting bullied in middle school, then being a struggling artist after college, overcoming Bells Palsy, and eventually living my Broadway dreams. It’s kind of a behind-the-scenes look at my life, my trials along the way, and times when my life felt like a celebration too.
My boyfriend JJ Caruncho wrote and directed the show, and he also played saxophone on one song. And I got to sing duets with Nicholas Christopher (Miss Saigon, Hamilton) and Javier Colon (season 1 winner of NBC’s “The Voice”)!
As I type this, you are in Kansas City starting rehearsals for a new project. Tell me a little about the show and your role.
Jacobs: I’m currently in rehearsals for a world-premiere new musical called Between the Lines, based on a novel by best-sellers Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer. I’m playing Delilah, the 17-year-old protagonist whose life is turned upside down when a character in a book starts speaking to her… literally.
It’s an inspiring story that explores the balance of fantasy and reality, and the power of literature to help us grow in unexpected ways. My character eventually learns to take control of her own destiny, instead of waiting to be rescued by a prince.
Courtney, how do you stay energized and healthy for an 8-show week?
Reed: Eating clean and Soul Cycle!
Dream roles, male or female, of any age or race.
Reed: I would love to be on a show like "New Girl" or "Broad City." For dramas, a show like "Game of Thrones," obvi! Or something like "Girls" Season 1.
Jacobs: Some favorite roles that I would love to play are Jenna (Waitress), Maria (West Side Story), Eliza (Hamilton), Kim (Miss Saigon). And one day, Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard)!
It seems we are experiencing an increasing divide in our country on multiple levels. Please share your words of advice or wisdom for anyone (or everyone) dealing with racial identity, sexual identity, bullying, "other-ness, ignorance or going through any of life’s struggles.
Reed: There is nothing more powerful in this world than believing in yourself, leading with your heart, and doing so with pride.
Jacobs: If you are in the midst of something painful, remember that this is a storm, and you are the sky. There is a brighter future waiting for you, just have faith. Believe in yourself and never dim your light for other people’s comfort.
Trust that the world has a destiny for you, no matter how much it seems like there are roadblocks in your way. There are hidden angels waiting in the wings to help you. Be on the lookout for miracles, for whatever you seek, you shall find.
Perhaps separately, any words of advice for aspiring performers out there?
Reed: Be nice to everyone. I mean EVERYONE! Also… admire and look up to people, but never try to be like them. Be yourself always, and you'll be winning!
Jacobs: Never stop training and developing your skills. There is always more the learn. Gain inspiration from other actors, and from everyday life. Every character is a puzzle, and there’s not one single way to prepare for every role. Ideas will reveal themselves over time.
Make sure that you believe in your worth as an artist. Make sure that you know WHY you want to be one. Make sure that your reason is bigger than just yourself. That’s how you will find the strength to stay in the game when it gets tough.
End of Interview
Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.