Shrek, the movie, was a movie staple throughout my childhood. As someone who has watched all four movies in the franchise (yes, including the one with Rumpelstiltskin, although that was a TRIP) as well as the Puss n’ Boots spinoff, it is safe to say that I know most of the stories like the back of my hand. Shrek, the musical, also has its own special place in my memory. Not only do I consider many of the songs from the show to be severely underrated, but it was also the first musical I ever performed in while in high school. And what role did I play as a freshman? I’ll give you some time to guess. Usually, people’s first guess is right on the nose.
Have you come up with your answer, yet? What did you guess? The vast majority of people who I have had similar discussions with almost always say, Donkey. And if you said Donkey, you would be… correct!
Now let me ask you, how did you come to that conclusion? Was it because you’ve heard me mention that I played Donkey in high school before? Or was it based off of a conversation we had in-person? Or if you don’t know me at all, what made you come to your conclusion? Some of these questions, particularly the last one, may cause some people to be reluctant or too uncomfortable to answer because they don’t want to admit the racial connotations of the role. Although it often goes unsaid, many people associate the role or persona of Donkey to a Black, male performer. This association poses an interesting question regarding blackness and the replication of the story of Shrek on the musical stage. Is the role of Donkey one that should only be played Black actors?
This is a question that I myself have been grappling with ever since I was cast in the show in high school. Even as I went through the audition process, there already seemed to be a general understanding that the only three Black, male students involved in the theatre program would be in the running for role of Donkey. But why is that? Why do we ascribe the role of Donkey to an exhibition of blackness? Even I find myself falling victim to this way of thinking. I remember one day when I was talking to a former colleague of mine, and he mentioned to me that he had also played Donkey in his school’s production of Shrek the Musical. I was surprised and taken aback because this particular colleague was white.
One case that can be made for this association between the role of Donkey and this notion of associated blackness is the original voice of the character, Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s performance as the voice of Donkey is arguably one of the most recognizable animated voiceovers to have ever been recorded. Murphy’s exceptional delivery, comedic timing, and distinct voice helped cement Shrek as the pop cultural staple that it is today. So much of Murphy can be extracted from the character of Donkey that Donkey appears to be an extension of Murphy’s persona rather than a separate one. Just listen to some of Murphy’s famous lines from the movie and you can understand exactly what I am talking about.
Murphy laid the groundwork for the character of Donkey several years before the story was adapted to be on Broadway. Shrek the Musical, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire opened on Broadway on December 2008. During its previews the musical had undergone major changes from song rewritings to replacement castings, including recasting the role of Donkey. But despite all of these changes, one thing remained constant: A Black actor always portrayed Donkey. In the filmed version of Shrek the Musical, currently streaming on Netflix, Daniel Breaker stars in the famous character role. Breaker brings a lot of energy and charisma to the role that distinguishes his performance as Donkey from Murphy’s vocal performance. However, there are several moments throughout the show that imply a connection between Donkey and a notion of “blackness,” many of which are be subtle or while other moments are not.
The first is that Breaker’s own blackness is heightened while performing as Donkey because he is one of two black actors in the entire musical cast. The second black performer appears several times throughout show in minor roles (which I suspect is because he is the understudy for Breaker, but I was not able to verify this at the time of writing). Because of the way Breaker has been costumed as Donkey, it is easy to discern Breaker as Black as soon as he enters onstage for the first time. Breaker’s headpiece has a face cutout that allows for Breaker’s facial skin to show through, as well as being short enough to see most of Breaker’s neck throughout the entire performance. This is strikingly different compared to the costuming for Shrek, portrayed by Brian d’Arcy James, as James is completely covered in green prosthetic makeup that prevents his skin from being shown at all. With this in mind, there is a visual distinction that can be made between Breaker’s Donkey and James’s Shrek. When audience members observe this distinction, whether they realize it or not, they associate a performer’s skin color with the character they portray. In this case, being able to identify Breaker as being Black fosters an extension to Donkey being perceived as Black as well. Coupled with the fact that audiences have likely already witnessed Murphy’s interpretation of Donkey before seeing the musical, this all funnels into reinforcing the notion that Donkey is inherently Black.
Throughout the production, Breaker’s Donkey exhibits several instances of animated blackness, or overexaggerated notions that suggest some sort of cultural tie to being black. While Breaker often treads this line between what I would designate originality and animated Blackness, the later reveals itself during the iconic “ogres are like onions” scene. Disgusted after Shrek compared himself to an onion, Donkey suggests using a more pleasant term such as parfait. Breaker delivers the line as follows:
Parfaits! Everybody likes parfaits and they have layers. Have you ever met a person and said, ‘Hey let’s get some parfaits,’ and they be like, ‘Hell no! I don’t like no parfaits!’”Daniel Breaker as Donkey in Shrek the Musical (2013)
He then follows up a several moments later saying:
Parfaits might be the most delicious thing on the whole damn planet.”Daniel Breaker as Donkey in Shrek the Musical (2013)
The word choice in both of these sentences insinuates a form of speech that is associated with blackness and Black culture known as African American Vernacular English. While these sentences function to get a joke across and elicit laughs from the audience, there is no denying that cultural implications are underlying these comments. A similar cultural reference occurs in the second act during the song “Make A Move,” a song that is audibly infused with R&B elements, another genre of music that has been significantly shaped and influenced by Black culture. Breaker’s Donkey even appears to imitate one of the most distinct voices in the history of R&B, the speaking voice of legendary R&B singer Barry White, dropping his voice down an octave to imitate White’s natural bass vibrato. In both of these cases, verbal language and how it is delivered, plays a huge part in the assumed cultural identity of Donkey.
So, with all of this information, I arrive back to my central question. Why is Donkey perceived as being Black or necessitating a Black performer? Most of the evidence stems from Murphy’s original portrayal, causing viewers to undoubtedly associate the character Donkey with Murphy himself. This perception served as the foundation of the character’s transition into the musical format, which was recreated through casting, costuming, dialogue, and even song selection. You obviously can’t have Eddie Murphy perform as every single iteration of Donkey in every professional production of Shrek the Musical. But you can integrate his likeness into a new medium so that the character, no matter who performs as Donkey, will always remind the audience of the original version.