Musical “Aida” canceled because racial balance of cast not achievable

No, not the opera Aida, but a musical by Tim Rice and Elton John based on Verdi’s masterpiece. The reporting on this incident at the University of Bristol, by the Torygraph, is a bit confusing, but apparently the musical was cancelled over a student protest about “cultural appropriation”.  It was, though, justa threatened appropriation: the possibility that, due to a shortage of students of color, white students would have to play the role of blacks and Nubians. And that shortage, so the Torygraph says, caused the play’s cancellation:

It is understood that there were protests amid fears that white students would be cast as leads and expected to portray Ancient Egyptians and slaves.

The musical, by Tim Rice and Elton John, is based on Verdi’s opera of the same name. It centres around an Ethiopian princess, Aida, who is held prisoner in Egypt, where she serves as a slave but falls in love with an Egyptian general.

One student commented: “White washing still exists, it’s been done enough in Hollywood, look at Liz Taylor in Cleopatra.”

Here’s the “explanation” by the theater group:

. . .  In its statement, the theatre said: “It is with great sadness that we are announcing the cancellation of Aida in this year’s MTB show calendar.

“This show that was voted in by our members has since caused controversy in terms of racial diversity.

“It is a great shame that we have had to cancel this show as, of course, we would not want to cause offence in any way, and that was certainly never our intention. Our intention was to tell this story, one which surely is better heard than not performed at all.”

Now clearly theaters should strive for racial diversity within the pool of qualified actors, and the time has long gone when actors must play “race-appropriate” characters. After all, look at the success of “Hamilton” on broadway, with many of America’s founding fathers played by people of color. We go to plays, after all, to suspend disbelief. But it’s unconscionable to simply cancel a play because, due to lack of actors, you can’t find enough people of color to play Nubians and slaves.

Once again, we see people deprived of a good artistic experience because of the college Offense Culture. Bristol University and its theater department should be ashamed of themselves.

“We would not want to cause offence in any way”: the touchstone of censorship in our age.


  1. Ray Little
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Couldn’t get enough ancient Egyptians to fill out the chorus, eh?

    • Posted October 11, 2016 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      This is how students make themselves feel important these days. I notice that Black protesters complaining about “cultural appropriation” never seem to see the irony of doing their complaining while wearing shoes and clothes invented by White, male, western Christians — or Jews, in the case of bluejeans (Levis!). Don’t you love pious hypocrisy?

  2. Posted October 8, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Well, I have to comment since I just inducted as staff a Bristol University last week.

    So, some background:

    Bristol is a port city that played a pivotal role in the slave trade. The street names still harken back to that era. I’m having lunch on Whiteladies Road. And I’ve heard there is a Black Boy Hill. I suspect there is a heightened sense of historical guilt, but I haven’t been here long enough to know. Although people have told me that Bristol is a diverse place, 95% of the folks I’ve encountered are white. Those who aren’t white have been restaurant workers for foods from different countries, and I’ve noticed some Asians, mostly because they were as perplexed as myself in the grocery store.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted October 8, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Congrats on the appointment!

      I think it might be a good life lesson to have to play a character from a different background. It might promote a bit of understanding.

    • Gareth
      Posted October 8, 2016 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Bristol is on paper anywhere from 77% to 85% ‘white’, depending on how you count ‘other-white’ categories. I doubt its evenly distributed though.
      Its pretty much on par with the UK average, though the ‘mixed’ part is supposed to be above the UK average (but then I guess it would be for any large British city).

      That said, whilst I’ve driven past it, and glimpsed Bristol Parkway station a few times, I’ve never properly been there🙂

    • jeremy pereira
      Posted October 10, 2016 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      You need to pay a visit to the Bag ‘O Nails (featured on this very web site). It’s at the bottom of Jacob Wells Road.

    • Posted October 8, 2016 at 9:46 am | Permalink


      Incidentally though related topically, I sat next to an epidemiologist from Karolinska yesterday morning during the Internal Journal of Epidemiology Conference. She relayed on break that she studies autism and its increasing incidence. . .

      • Posted October 8, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        Meh, typing on phone:


      • Flemur
        Posted October 8, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink


        I stuck that in, tongue-in-cheek (maybe), because people who get upset about “white people” doing harmless things are kinda nutty, and not in a good way.

        I’d guess that the reported increase is more likely the result of some sort of reward for being “disabled”, rather than an actual increase nutty people at Bristol.

        Here is the full statement from MTB, the Fecebook post that apparently started the witch-hunt, and a response by a non-possessed MTB member.

        • Posted October 8, 2016 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

          Yes. And the increase in autism is likewise speculated to be due to social factors governing the label and reporting and not due to genetic causes or disease states. What’s deemed “autism” is what has changed.

  3. Posted October 8, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I don’t follow the quoted comment about Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra. Cleopatra was a member of the Macedonian dynasty, and thus of, at least mostly, southern European Caucasian ancestry. Taylor was Jewish, and thus a plausible ethnic stand-in for a Greek/Macedonian. Even if Cleopatra was part Egyptian, as a fellow east Mediterranean Caucasian, Taylor would not be far off either. Rex Harrison playing Julius Caesar was a bigger (but by no means adventurous) ethnic stretch.

    • Posted October 8, 2016 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Elizabeth Taylor was a converted WASP.

      • Posted October 8, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        I did not know. You learn something new everyday– fairly minor in this case, but new!

    • Posted October 8, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Ah, scooped.

      I find it astonishing how many Americans assume that (a) the Hellene Cleopatra and (b) the Ancient Egyptians were sub-Saharan Africans, as in that video some time back where an African American thought that dreadlocks existing in Ancient Egypt made them African American heritage.

      • infiiteimprobability
        Posted October 8, 2016 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

        The Ptolemies were I think of Greek origin (or was it Macedonian?) but, by the time they’d finished marrying each other, probably their own unique ethnicity.

        (just kiddin’)

    • eric
      Posted October 8, 2016 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      Forget the ethnicity issue. If your ‘poster child’ for Hollywood racism consists of a decision to cast the (AFI rated) seventh greatest actress ever, you have no case. She’d won 11 major awards by the time she did Cleopatra, at age 29. Geez, claiming it was racism and not sheer talent that went into this decision is like claiming Tom Brady is only a quarterback because he is white. Its just mind-bogglingly stupid.

      On top of the obvious choice-for-talent explanation, the other problem with this being the “Hollywood is racist” example is that it occurred 53 years ago. So even if someone thinks it was racism at work, it is utterly worthless as an argument that it shows Hollywood is racist now.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 8, 2016 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

      Yeah i thought the exact same thing. Cleopatra was an Ancient Greek. Ancient Greeks were white. They were also white imperialists. It drives me crazy when people try to make some ridiculous modern point based on incorrect historical knowledge.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 8, 2016 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        Wikipedia outlines the Ptolemaic dynasty here. To understand the difference in time between the Ptolemaic rule during the Hennenistic period and the rule if the Ancient Egyptians, the pyramids were already ancient during the time of the Ancient Romans. The Ancient Greeks and Romans would have viewed the Egyptians, who built the pyramids, as Ancient in the way we see the Ancient Greeks and Romans today.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted October 8, 2016 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

          Here’s a family tree:

          (Here’s the mother page:

          And if (as I once did) you pencil in who killed each one, it’s apparent that procreation wasn’t the only thing they kept ‘in the family’.

          The BBC had a highly entertaining if rather saucy series ‘The Cleopatras’ a couple of decades ago – now on Youtube I think.


          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted October 8, 2016 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

            By the way, that page I mentioned above has a highly entertaining summary of the familial doings of the Ptolemies. No writer of soap operas would dare put forward a plot outline as tangled as that.


          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 9, 2016 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

            They drive me crazy because they constantly reuse names. I did a paper on Arsinoe & I can’t even remember which one it was.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted October 9, 2016 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

              They probably knew which one they were.

              But I agree it’s very confusing for anyone else, even historians. This is why that page I quoted could include things like
              “[Ptolemy X] married the daughter of Ptolemy IX, Berenice III. Ptolemy XI also married Berenice III, who was either his sister or mother but had her killed after nineteen days.”

              Somehow or other, reusing the same names seems to emphasise the entertaining and incredible incestuousness of the dynasty.


  4. rickflick
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I have a hard time imagining a play with white Brits in blackface. I see Al Jolson wailing away – “Mammy…”, and other comedic effects akin to Monty Python skits. Perhaps some judicious selections of actors from other neighborhoods would help.

    • Peter Nyikos
      Posted October 8, 2016 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Back in the 1960’s a major movie, “Othello,” featured the British actor, Laurence Olivier, playing Othello in very stark blackface. Today perhaps the effect would be comical, but Olivier was arguably the greatest Shakesperian actor of his time, having played Hamlet in his younger days and King Lear in his old age, both in major films.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 8, 2016 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Here we are – a clip from The Party, with the inimitable Peter Sellers in blackface as an Indian extra in Hollywood.

      (with toilet roll in special recognition of Diana)

      If we ban that, do we also have to ban Peter Sellers’ rendition of Inspector Clouseau with his abominable French accent?


      • rickflick
        Posted October 8, 2016 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

        Aaaah, Peter!

  5. GBJames
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 9:45 am | Permalink


  6. Posted October 8, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink


  7. Steven in Tokyo
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    So, must every Madama Butterfly be Japanese? And every Pinkerton American?

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Guess heads would explode now over Orson Welles’ staging of “Voodoo Macbeth” in Harlem.

    • jeremy pereira
      Posted October 10, 2016 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      What about his version of Othello?

  9. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I’ll bet I’m not the only one offended by the cancellation of a theatrical production due to a local shortage of black actors. In this era of manufactured offense, it is literally impossible to “not give offense to anyone”.

  10. jimroberts
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    “… fears that white students would be cast as leads and expected to portray Ancient Egyptians and slaves.”
    Is somebody simply assuming that slaves have to be black? Most slaves owned by classical Greeks and Romans were white, and I do not suppose that ancient Egyptians would object to white slaves.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted October 8, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Cast brochures handed out to patrons as they go in often various notes that help people understand a story. A simple note about slavery in that place and time could alleviate concerns.

  11. Posted October 8, 2016 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Why are modern Americans obsessed to portray ancient Egyptians as black against all evidence? I think this question is, as we say, “dissertable” (i.e. if properly handled, can provide one or more young researchers with PhD theses).

  12. bric
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    If we apply this thinking to actual operas great sopranos like Leontyne Price or Jessye Norman would have had a very restricted choice of roles; Margaret Price (Welsh) might have been the only singer eligible to sing Norma (a Celt), Australians like Joan Sutherland would need a whole new repertory, and George Shirley (black) would never have given the performance of Pelléas that bowled me over in 1970.

  13. ladyatheist
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    In an age when black and Asian singers regularly appear on the world’s opera stages performing Italian versions of Shakespearian characters, this is ridiculous.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 8, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely agreed!


  14. Robert Seidel
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    And will there also be a protest if not enough Aryans are casted for a production of Wagner’s Ring?

  15. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted October 8, 2016 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Well, nobody should be allowed to watch re-runs of Hercules – The Legendary Journeys or Xena Warrior Princess (which were made not far from here (NZ). Because, although Renaissance Pics often used ‘colour-blind’ casting, inevitably, for good financial and practical reasons, a huge variety of ethnicities from ancient Britons to Roman legionaries to Arabs to Siberians to Chinese and Japanese, were played by the same pool of mostly European / Polynesian extras and stunt actors.

    Not to mention, of course, that everybody magically spoke the same language – English, not Greek or Latin or whatever. And they thoroughly mangled reimagined all the Greek legends. Cultural appropriation ahoy! Would they have even been allowed to make such a series today?

    You could substitute almost any ‘period’ drama here – obviously *anyone* making a historical drama is faced with the same conundrum – if they made it accurately in the original language of the participants, almost nobody would be able to follow it.


  16. Mike
    Posted October 9, 2016 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    It’s about time they did courses in common sense.

  17. Posted October 12, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    How “micro” does this decision go? Do we distinguish between Nubia and Mali?

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