Singing “Part of Your World” as Ariel under a sea of bright lights was a dream come true for actress Diana Huey.
But it was also a dream Huey wasn’t sure she’d accomplish even when she first auditioned for a touring production of "The Little Mermaid" musical in April 2016.
“I had gone in with very little thoughts that I would book the job because I didn't think they would cast an Asian girl as Ariel for such a long touring contract,” Huey told NBC News about her New York audition.
“Looking back at that now, it makes me sad that I had put that doubt on myself,” she added. “I typecast myself right out of a job in my head because of the way I look, not because I didn't think that I could perform the job.”
The show opened for a two-month engagement in Seattle in November 2016 before later touring across the United States, with stops in Atlanta and Orlando among other cities, Huey said. After a two-month break, it departed on the second part of its tour, which is scheduled to run until November and is produced by theater companies Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight.
“I didn't just feel like an actor playing Ariel singing these thoughts of hers, but that I was just me — wanting to be in world where I wasn't being judged or hurt. It was really real.”
But touring the U.S. hasn’t been without its share of bumps in the road.
After Huey’s photo was released during a round of publicity in October 2016, she came across a slew of negative social media comments criticizing the show’s casting, her appearance, and her singing abilities, she said. At the time, she forced herself to ignore the comments; she stopped reading them and focused her energy on the upcoming tour.
“I was so happy and I eventually forgot that for some people, I was this controversial and upsetting issue,” Huey said.
But after a fellow cast member posted a promotional video of their Memphis stop in July, Huey couldn’t help but read the new social media comments that surfaced.
“People were upset that I didn’t look like Ariel, upset that they didn’t like my voice and everything,” she said.
The article was initially going to be a feature about the show and her role as an iconic character, Huey said. But the interview shifted into conversations about race and then Huey started talking about her recent experience on social media.
“No one should feel like they aren't enough because of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes or any factor outside of WHO THEY ARE,” she wrote. “And as I go out on the road city to city as an Asian American playing Ariel, I hope that it will inspire the next person who is out there auditioning for something to believe that THEY can be cast in a role based on their work and their talents.”
A 'dream come true'
As early as the age of four, Huey knew she wanted to be on stage. During family holidays, she’d rummage through her mom’s dresser, put on makeup, and wrap a pink feather boa around herself.
“If I had known when I was a little girl watching ‘The Little Mermaid,’ like someday I’d wear Ariel’s pink ballroom gown, I would have exploded,” said Huey, adding that she is a “huge Disney nerd.
“I typecast myself right out of a job in my head because of the way I look, not because I didn't think that I could perform the job.”
“I have been a huge Alan Menken fan my entire life and getting to now sing his music is a complete dream come true,” Huey said, referring to the Oscar-winning Disney composer. “Disney has been a huge influence in my life.”
Born in Japan and raised as an adoptee in a multicultural household in Seattle, Huey moved to New York three and a half years ago to expand her professional acting career. Huey said one of the reasons she made the move was because she began to feel boxed in for certain acting roles.
“When I was working in Seattle at the time, there weren’t a lot of Asian-American actors or actresses so I would always be at any call when they were calling for someone ethnic," Huey said. "If the character was not white, I would always be called in for that. Obviously if it was an Asian call, I’d be called for that.”
More than 'an actor playing Ariel'
Despite the negative comments she initially received online, Huey said the experience has actually given her a better understanding of the character of Ariel. While singing “Part of Your World” during a recent sound check, she said the song felt empowering and relatable.
She added that the experience has given her a better understanding of herself.
“I didn't just feel like an actor playing Ariel singing these thoughts of hers, but that I was just me — wanting to be in world where I wasn't being judged or hurt. It was really real,” Huey said.
“The way that it is in the show, Ariel is fighting to belong in her world and fighting to be accepted and fighting to stick up for herself, and I was like, ‘this is way too real right now,’” she added.
Since discussing the negative comments, Huey has received an outpouring of support from people who appreciated her taking a stand and using her experience to continue the dialogue surrounding diversity in theater, she said.
Witnessing the impact of her performance on the Asian-American community, particularly children, has also been empowering and rewarding, she added.
“When I see a little Asian girl watching the show, it’s just it’s really powerful,” she said. “It’s a very cool feeling, and it’s something I didn’t think would happen for me."