Why Is Donkey Always Black?

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!

Photographic Evidence of myself as Donkey

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.

Carnaval del Progreso: Almost There, But Not Quite

After watching the PBS documentary and unexpectedly coming across a bootleg that featured the original Broadway cast (YouTube always comes in clutch when you least expect, I must say), I became more aware of what Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights intended to do and what it meant for the performers and members of the creative team who were involved. The musical intended to not only showcase the vast diversity of Latinx people and their culture but to provide opportunities for Latinx performers to portray characters that shed a positive light on the many heritages and traditions Latinx people celebrate. And after reading the show’s libretto and taking a glance or two at the YouTube-recommended bootleg, I believe I accomplished these goals. In the Heights does a satisfactory job of highlighting a concept known as multiculturalism. The production most certainly allows spectators to gather awareness of the presence of Latinx identity and the communal cultural heritage that exists in the real-life neighborhood of Washington Heights. However, the story dramatization forces parts of the plot and character representation to become more superficial rather than profound.

Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Into the Heights was a flagship for Hispanic representation on the Broadway stage when it debuted in 2008. Miranda and Hudes’s production was one of the first of its kind to showcase the robust and diverse community of Washington Heights. The show portrays how a collective set of similar beliefs binds together the Latino immigrant community despite community members hailing from different regions of Latin America. The choice to fuse traditional Broadway storytelling with Latin-inspired dance, unapologetic Spanish-speaking characters, and emphasis on the immigrant story advance an intuitive plot that explores what it means to find belonging amongst a close-knit community where cultural differences are welcome. Not only does the musical do this, but it also examines how this sense of belonging functions in an overarching, modern American landscape. Into the Heights employs character relationships, production and design elements, and ensemble performance to demonstrate how multiculturalism, the coexistence of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities, fosters a unique and diverse set of individuals who all find universal belonging in the production’s setting, Washington Heights.

The musical number “Carnaval del Barrio” was one of the most enjoyable numbers to watch. The song emphasizes and celebrates the importance of fostering a cohesive and diverse community amongst its Hispanic characters. The number especially brings to light the importance of helping bring up members of the community during moments of doubt and adversity. During this song, Daniela, the local hair salon owner who comically doubles as the unofficial town crier, rallies members of the Washington Heights community during the hottest Fourth of July, which just so happens to coincide with a citywide blackout. Daniela commands her community to lift its spirits despite the circumstances and join her in song and dance. She wrangles the idling ensemble members into an impromptu neighborhood celebration while singing in not just English, but in Spanish as well. As Daniela seamlessly flows between the two languages, she demonstrates the unique, multicultural characteristic that defines the community of Washington Heights. Her bilingual fluency functions as a bridge that joins the neighborhood’s collective Latino heritage with the American landscape they currently occupy. Daniel’s Spanish functions as a tool that reminds everyone of their heritage and where their families have been before, while English operates as a reminder as to why the characters find themselves in Washington Heights in the first place. Daniela’s ability to speak Spanish does not hinder or prevent the fluency of which she speaks English or vice versa.  The performance of the two languages complements each other, offering insight into a community that is just as proud of its ethnic roots as it is to be celebrating Independence Day in the country they call home. Daniela’s words reinforce the multiculturalist message that In the Heights aims to recreate accurately. Daniela successfully demonstrates that Latinx culture and American culture can coexist and create a distinct experience that adapts the cultural values and practices of each character’s heritage into a new setting.

An image from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 production In the Heights featuring Miranda (center left) as Usnavi and Andrea Burns (center right) as Daniela.

As the number progresses, the ensemble members slowly begin to join Daniela in her Latin celebration. They start off dancing relatively slow and constrained, restricting their movements to simple two-/three-step Latin choreography. Although the ensemble performance remains scaled down during this point of the production number, the Latin influence in their footwork and hip movements is apparent. Together the ensemble, although not positioned in a distinct formation, sway and move their feet in time with the music as if they are a complete unit. While each ensemble character is distinctly separate from the other and performs differently from one another, the timing of their movements altogether unifies them. Each character’s individuality serves as a representation of the wide range of Spanish-speaking countries and territories they represent. Although the ensemble’s dance steps represent various styles and steps of Latin dance, the ensemble appears united as the members all move to the same beat and feed off of each other’s enthusiasm. The ensemble movement effectively functions as a mechanism that fosters bonds amongst the individuals that makeup Washington Heights, once again emphasizing the variety of cultural and ethnic identities amongst Latinx people that can coexist within a singular community. Each body that operates functions as a sect of the multiculturalism that makes up the greater community.

From this point on, the “Carnaval del Barrio” choreography continues to grow with more energy and enthusiasm. Progressing from simple steps and hip sways, the ensemble members burst into highly involved Latin choreography that consists of energetic spinning, punctuated clapping, and enthusiastic flag-waving. During this moment, the three flags that the ensemble members dance with represent the countries and territories of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. These flags are waved proudly above the ensemble’s heads and shaken with vigor, signaling the multi-national pride that exists as Washington Heights proudly celebrates. While each of these flags represents a different country, the synchronous dancing once again unites each individual together. The dancers’ uniformity sends a message that differences in national origin do not prevent community formation. Instead, In the Heights contests that community prospers from collective celebration and recognition of cultural differences.

There is no doubt that “Carnaval del Barrio” is a celebratory explosion of Latinx pride and dance. Unfortunately, I believe the recognition of distinct Latinx culture begins and ends here. Outside of the national flags that hang from the fire escapes and the occasional Spanish interjection, everything else about the characters’ situation seems fairly normal. And let me be clear, normal is not used here with a negative undertone. Normalcy can be good. Normalcy, in this case, can help an audience member relate to the characters within the story, a concept referred to as universality. Universality recognizes that as humans, we are just that, human. We are all the same regardless of our skin color, the traditions we engage in, where our family is from, or the religion we choose the practice. However, it is possible to simultaneously acknowledge that we are all humans that deserve to be treated as such and recognize that society affords different groups of people distinct life experiences. Into the Heights does a great job at conveying the former. But the latter? Not as much.

The Into the Heights finale left me leaning more heavily into the normalcy narrative. I perceived the characters from Washington Heights, everyone from Usnavi to Vanessa to Nina to Sonny, and the real-life group of people they represent as people who deserve to be treated with decency. And if this was the sole narrative Miranda and Hudes wanted to achieve with their work, then they definitely have achieved that goal. However, as someone who was under the impression that In the Heights would educate them on the diversity that exists in Latinx immigrant culture, I was unfortunately underwhelmed. While I did learn about Washington Heights and the diverse community that calls this neighborhood home, I am still left with the bigger question of what distinguishes this group of individuals from each other. While Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic are all represented either visually or through character exposition, the differences in culture in each of these countries are never explicitly explored. Although all of these countries are lingually united, I can’t imagine that a Cuban would full-heartedly agree that Mexican culture is the same as Cuban culture. Yes, Miranda’s characters are Latinx, but Latinx people are not a monolith. And going forward, future theatrical work should actively work against this idea.

Criticism and all, Miranda still manages to create a body of work that provides representation to those who have historically been underrepresented on the Broadway stage. In the Heights successfully subverts negative Latinx stereotypes and offers Latinx performers an opportunity to engage with their cultural heritage through a publicly enjoyed art medium. In the grand scheme of Broadway and entertainment at large, Miranda succeeds in introducing Latinx multiculturalism to a broader audience. Granted, Broadway typically caters to a majority white audience that may or may not perpetuate the same process the musical warns about (ahem, I’m looking at you, Gentrification), but I digress. In the Heights certainly has not been the last Latinx-inspired story to hit Broadway. On Your Feet!, the jukebox musical that retells the life of the legendary Cuban singer-songwriter duo, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, graced the Great White Way in 2015. And I am sure once Broadway starts back up after the pandemic, positive portrayals of Latinx communities will only become more frequent and representative over time. It may not be perfect, but In the Heights is an important stepping stone towards the Latinx representation we should all be championing for.

Miss Saigon, Where Do We Go From Here?

When I found out that I would be watching the musicals Miss Saigon and The King and I for an academic class, I was more than excited to experience these productions. Not only had I not seen a production of these musicals before, but I was eager to see a minority culture represented on the Broadway stage. After some conversations surrounding representation and musical theatre with my own friends, I was made aware of the significance the show held for some of my Southeast Asian friends. I had assumed that Miss Saigon and The King and I were just as significant to my friends as Dreamgirls and The Color Purple are significant to me. And while Miss Saigon and The King and I do have some great storytelling aspects and stellar performers, the stereotypical sentiment towards Southeast Asians, specifically Southeast Asian women, continues to be portrayed in modern productions.

Miss Saigon transports audience members overseas and into 1970s Vietnam and Myanmar. Despite the foreign location, the production supplies spectators with a specific, Western-centric insight into the people and the culture inherent to these regions. Miss Saigon portrays a war-torn landscape where the native women are willing to do almost anything to escape their circumstances and pursue a better life in America, even if it means being whisked away by an American soldier whom they were pimped out to. When broken down analytically, the production itself offers intriguing commentary on the intersectional experience of being Asian and being a woman. However, most of these depictions draw upon negative stereotypes, and originate from an exclusively Western perspective. Kim, the lead character in Miss Saigon, is a prime example of a character whose femininity is accentuated to conform to the stereotype of the perfect, Asian woman. This notion becomes even more complicated as Kim’s expressed femininity comes into comparison with Ellen’s role as Chris’s American wife. The differences that exists between Kim and Ellen not only inform the gendered roles that they assume, but also lends itself to creating an intersectional crossroad of race and gender that specifically affects how Kim is depicted. As a result, Kim’s actions become a performance of otherness whenever juxtaposed with Ellen, a performance of whiteness.

Prior to Miss Saigon’s original Broadway debut, the terms “geisha girl” and “china doll” were grossly utilized to define characteristics that were expected of Southeast Asian women. These terms perpetuated the idea that these women were the epitome of submission and docility, more so than white women. These submissive and docile characteristics were molded to fit the Western, male-centered expectations of femininity. Subsequently, these stereotypes were subtly, and purposefully, integrated into Miss Saigon’s plot, characters, and the other storytelling elements. From the very beginning of the musical, Kim is depicted as a mere object of the existence that surrounds her. She almost always exclusively operates as a passive recipient, arguably only fulfilling the role of a direct decision maker during the final moments of the performance. From the very beginning of the production, Kim is lead away from her homeland and thrusted into the frenzied backstage of a strip club. When instructed to be the sexually desired object of a group of American soldiers, Kim meekly follows the Engineer’s commands as the men chant “the heat is on in Saigon, the girls are ready to screw.” These two contrasting images corroborate the submissive stereotype that have been inflicted upon women of Southeast Asian descent. The brash chants of the soldiers vocally assert a dominance over the women in the bar. Their forceful tone matches their physicality as they move their muscular bodies across the stage and lunge after the prostitutes that inhabit the bar. As the men intentionally graze up against her, grab and caress her arms, and lead her by the hips, Kim continues to be an object of their desires. It isn’t until Chris, one of the American soldiers, intervenes on Kim’s “behalf” that this behavior comes to a halt. The show itself doesn’t provide Kim with any agency of her own to redeem herself from this unsettling and overtly male dominated situation. Instead a white, American soldier must rescue Kim from her circumstance, suggesting that Kim alone does not have the power to advocate for herself. Even while she resides in her own country, it takes the authority and masculinity of a foreigner from the Western world to ease her struggle. In other words, Miss Saigon insinuates that the only way out for Kim and the other Vietnamese women working for the Engineer is to be submissive to an ideal, mostly white, American man.

The implications of race and gender in Miss Saigon continue when the audience is introduced to Ellen, Chris’s wife whom he marries several years after leaving Vietnam. Her first appearance during “I Still Believe” seamlessly intertwines Kim’s and Ellen’s individual storylines despite the characters not having any direct interaction at this point. While both women sing about Chris, Ellen is positioned lying in bed next to him wearing a simple, seemingly silken nightgown with a marriage band fastened her left ring finger. Conversely, Kim kneels on the ground below in soiled clothing with dirt smudged across her face, clutching the only remnant of Chris that she has. Kim’s circumstance, depicted by filth and squalor, warrants sympathy from the audience. Ellen’s condition, however, cements her status as Chris’s legitimate wife, almost refuting the establishment of Kim and Chris’s prior relationship. Complete with a marriage ring and a marriage bed, Ellen represents the traditional woman that awaits an American soldier once he returns from war: blonde, white, and ready to get hitched. Ellen even expresses her spousal commitment to Chris as she closes the song singing, “I’m your wife now for life until we die.” Kim mirrors Ellen’s final words, instead singing “I’m yours until we die.” Once again, the simultaneous comparison of Kim’s and Ellen’s inner thoughts aim to create sympathy for Kim. While Kim fantasizes about rekindling her relationship with Chris, Ellen lives out this fantasy in reality. Kim’s inability to acquire any of the physical signifiers of traditional marriage, unlike Kim, delegitimizes her relationship with Chris. This feeds into the concept of Eastern exoticism as Kim, previously desired and feminized to the upmost degree, becomes replaced for a more traditional, American woman.

The emphasis on Kim’s otherness reaches a peak during “Room 317,” the number where Kim meets Ellen for the first time. When Kim enters the hotel room, Ellen immediately dismisses her as cleaning personnel. In this brief moment, Ellen doesn’t consider Kim to be a person of significance. Even given the situation that brought her and Chris to Bangkok, Ellen never stops to consider if Kim is the woman Chris is looking for. Although this comment may have been made unconsciously, it calls Ellen’s reaction seeing a Southeast Asian woman entering her room into question. Her split-second reaction to Kim’s race and gender immediately labels Kim as just another person on her trip to Bangkok, someone who is there to merely turn the Ellen’s bedsheets for her convenience. If Kim had been a Southeast Asian man or a white woman, Ellen’s reaction would not have had the same effect. It is the combination of both Kim’s race and gender that this small comment carries as much consequence and insight as it does. 

As the conversation between Kim and Ellen continues, Ellen makes several, short comments and behaves in a way that reads as attempt to distance herself from Kim. When Kim implores Ellen to take her son, Tam, back to America with her and Chris, Ellen remains in her chair while Kim begs from the floor. Ellen is physically situated above Kim, affording Ellen more physical presence as well as control over the exchange. This dynamic leaves Kim depicted as the woman without any influence on the conversation. Given she has the upper hand, Ellen is visibly opposed to the idea and concisely remarks, “Chris is married to me, we want kids of our own.” Ellen’s remarks make it clear that she is married to Chris and the family she imagines does not and will not consist of Chris and Kim’s son. Ellen drives this point even further exclaiming, “He’s your child, he’s not mine!” This is Ellen’s most blatant attempt at otherizing Kim and Tam. In this moment, Ellen unconsciously reveals that Tam has no place in her American-born family despite being Chris’s biological son. Sending off a little money here and there is enough to meet Tam’s needs in Ellen’s mind, fueling her own white saviorism from the comfort of her homestead.

Both during its debut and its return to Broadway, Miss Saigon has been able to attract massive audiences, and it isn’t hard to imagine why this is. Eva Noblezada’s performance as Kim during the West End revival is more than good reason to invest in watching Miss Saigon. Her and the energy her other castmates bring to the stage, particularly Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer and Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi, makes watching the musical an immersive experience. However, this doesn’t negate the harmful ideas and images that the musical itself perpetuates. Displays of toxic masculinity, white saviorism, and Asian exoticism run rampant throughout the show, and it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge how these topics are rooted in real-world viewpoints and have real-word consequences. The ways in which Kim is treated throughout the show reflect how society has and continues to view minority women. The relationship between Kim and Ellen creates a dichotomy that explains how whiteness and non-whiteness, or otherness, have been defined historically. As troubling as these concepts may be, their subject matter can be used to foster productive discussion. These conversations can help inform future decisions concerning honest representations of not only Southeast Asian people, but all minorities across the musical theatre medium.