A Black Utah teen says an Orem theater group is ‘whitewashing’ production of ‘Aida’

For a story about an Ethiopian princess, Emma Zemp realized she was the only Black person given a callback.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emma Zemp, 15, pictured in her home Friday, May 27, 2022. Zemp quit the upcoming production of the Elton John/Tim Rice musical "Aida" at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio and sent a letter to the show directors for being "culturally insensitive" in the way the directors cast the show.

Emma Zemp, for several years, has wanted to play the lead in the musical “Aida.”

When she auditioned for the role — an Ethiopian princess who, after being enslaved by the Egyptians, falls in love with an Egyptian military commander — in a production of the Elton John/Tim Rice musical at Orem’s Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, “it made me think and add more emotion to when we were dancing it. Because it wasn’t just, ‘Oh, this is a dance. It was: Oh, this is my heritage.’”

Zemp is Black, and was adopted from Zambia when she was a little girl. She is now a sophomore at Orem High School.

The character of the princess, because of her African heritage, is traditionally played by a Black performer. When the musical premiered on Broadway in 1997, the role was played by Heather Headley, a Black actress who won a Tony for her portrayal, and later by singers Toni Braxton and Michelle Williams (from Destiny’s Child). Leontyne Price, one of the first prominent Black sopranos in opera, made Aida — from the opera Giuseppe Verde wrote more than a century before the Elton John version — one of her signature roles.

When Zemp didn’t get the part back in March, she said, she was disappointed but understood the decision. But during callbacks, she noticed she was the only Black person in the room, and felt anxious to be there.

“It felt mocking and it hurt,” she said. “I felt like I needed to get out of there.”

What’s worse, she said, is that as a member of the ensemble, she and the other cast members would be bowing down to a white performer cast as Aida.

“Having Caucasians play any of the Nubian characters is blatant cultural appropriation,” Zemp wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune, accusing Center Stage of “whitewashing” the production, which was scheduled to run June 2, 3, 4 and 6.

‘Colorblind’ casting or cultural appropriation?

Emma Zemp’s mother, Heather Zemp (who is white), contacted the directors of Center Stage’s production, Brandy Brinkerhoff and Chandra Orme, after Emma came home from callbacks.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heather Zemp and her daughter Emma Zemp, 15, pictured in their home Friday, May 27, 2022. Emma Zemp quit the upcoming production of the Elton John/Tim Rice musical "Aida" at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio and sent a letter to the show directors for being "culturally insensitive" in the way the directors cast the show.

Emma, her mother wrote in an email to the directors, “was very disturbed that actors who are not people of color were being considered for Nubian roles. … This play, in particular, needs to be cast as intended when it was originally written and produced. One of the most important themes in the show is the injustice of racism and slavery. It would NOT be appropriate for the Nubian roles to be played by people who do not have lived experience being in a minority that is treated as less than.”

Heather Zemp added that she and her daughter “are well connected in the Black community here in Utah, and I assure you there are kids that could be in the show. They may not have known about these auditions, but with some creative recruiting I feel confident we could find talented kids that could bring diversity to the cast.”

Brinkerhoff and Orme responded to Heather Zemp’s email later that day: “While race can indeed be a strong factor in this show, upon research this show is very much about blind hatred. Whether that hatred is due to race or ethnicity, religion, country of origin, any disability or political views — blind hatred is wrong in all its forms.”

The directors also said they do “colorblind” casting in all their productions, and they listed statistics on the Black population in Utah County. (According to U.S. Census data from 2021, 0.8% of the county’s population is Black.)

Heather Zemp also reached out to Kim DelGrosso, who is the center’s co-owner and creative director, over text message to share her concerns. DelGrosso responded that she would “for sure look into this.” Zemp said she never did, to her knowledge.

DelGrosso did not respond to The Tribune’s attempts to seek comment.

DelGrosso is running for the state school board, and has been criticized by parents and members of Utah’s LGBTQ+ community for some of her comments. She also has declared her support for Natalie Cline, a conservative member of the board who was reprimanded in 2021 for social-media posts that led some of her followers to threaten violence.

‘Disgruntled customers’

The notice for auditions for Aida was posted on BackstageUtah.com, a website that caters to Utah’s theater community, Orme said. The notice was also posted at 12 area high schools, and on the Center Stage website, she said.

“All of our auditions always say all roles are open to all ethnicities,” Orme said. She added that there were no special steps to reach out specifically to recruit BIPOC actors. Even without such measures, she said, 12% of those auditioning were members of some ethnic group, “which, quite frankly, for Provo/Orem is high. … I was actually pleased with the turnout that we had of racial diversity because it was higher than the community standards.”

The cast chosen for “Aida,” she said, had a conversation on the first day about “hate and blind hatred,” telling the kids all hate is wrong.

“If you perceive someone else as different, that doesn’t mean you can have blind hatred. That’s wrong in all its forms,” Orme said. “Hate is a universal language that everyone can understand and fight against. It doesn’t have to be about race, it can be about hate. You can have races play all different kinds of roles and it should go both directions.”

Orme stressed that Center Stage “is youth theater, it doesn’t matter what race, religion or sexual orientation or politics you have in my program. If you are the best person, you get cast in that role.”

Two years ago, Orme noted, she had cast Emma Zemp’s brother, Eli (who is also Black), as Oaken in a junior production of “Frozen.”

Orme compared the Zemps to “disgruntled customers” who are “unhappy with the service they got.”

BIPOC recruitment

It’s not the first time “Aida” has prompted such criticism. In 2016, a production of the play in Bristol, England, was canceled after complaints of cultural appropriation because white actors were set to play the main roles.

Emma Zemp has personal history with the musical. In 2016, she saw it at Hale Centre Theatre, shortly after the theater opened its grand theater in Sandy.

What Emma didn’t know is that her mother contacted Raven Flowers, the actress who played the princess, to set up a meeting for her daughter. Flowers brought all of the cast’s Black performers with her, and surprised Emma at a Chili’s after the show. The cast told her: Someday, this is going to be you.”

Both Emma and Eli were cast in a 2019 production of “Aida” at the SCERA Center for Arts in Orem. Heather Zemp singled out that production as proof that Black children can be found and cast in Utah — because the program made a conscious effort to recruit.

“I think if you hold an audition and you can’t fill the role with the right people, then you either go and recruit people and find them — or you don’t do that show,” Heather Zemp said.

Emma Zemp wrote an essay about her experience, in which she asked: “Shouldn’t we be giving the roles to the actors who are equipped with the background and identity to tell the story and do it authentically opposed to those who have many more opportunities to tell their own stories on stage?”

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