Brandy’s Cinderella Is Suffering From Institutional Memory Loss By Thai Harris Singer

The turn of the 20th century was an era obsessed with the fantasy of “post-racial America.” Driven by the excitement and the fear of an impending multiracial society, the post-racial America myth was and continues to be, a belief that racism can be solved by higher rates of interracial marriage, a new generation of “caramel babies” and “love conquers all” narratives. In the late 1990s, the myth gave rise to an oversaturated and colorblind-obsessed market that churned out as many interracial couples and colorblind castings in film, tv, and theater as the fragile ego of white American culture could handle. I don’t remember this time period vividly, I was still in diapers when the year 2000 came around. But damn did I reap the benefits of it. If there was ever a target audience for this media trend, I would be it. Born to a Black mother and a White father in 1997, I saw my family represented on-screen regularly in this time. Film revivals re-cast for a “new” mixed-race generation were plentiful, and my parents ensured that I owned almost all of them on VHS. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1997 made-for-tv Cinderella starring Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston is my favorite of the collection. Lovingly known as “Brandy Cinderella” in my household, the film remains one of my biggest comfort movies and was hugely influential in developing my interest in music, dance, and performance. Over the years I have loved and defended this film with a fierceness that I didn’t know was matched by many others until this year, when the film was finally released on Disney Plus. 

When the announcement was made, Cinderella fans flooded social media, and rightfully so. The film was groundbreaking for an entire generation of young children. Widely regarded as the “first Black Disney Princess”, Cinderella starred a young Brandy as Cinderella, Phillipinx singer and actor Paolo Montalban as her Prince Charming, Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, an interracial royal King and Queen, and a stacked cast of Broadway legends, including Victor Garber, Bernadette Peters and Jason Alexander. The film was unprecedented in the history of movie musicals, and more broadly the musical theatre industry. It starred a darker-skinned, gorgeously micro-braided Black woman in an ingenue role. The original Rodgers and Hammerstein score got a 90’s-appropriate R&B makeover, with Whitney and Brandy riffing and belting at every opportunity. And the Queen was played by Whoopi Goldberg, whose dreadlocks were adorned in million-dollar Harry Winston tiaras. Compared to its predecessors, Cinderella was a definitively and proudly Black film that stuck out against a blindingly white American musical canon. And as a child who was raised around Black culture and art, Brandy’s Cinderella was one of the first pieces of musical theater, the first Disney movie ever, that felt truly familiar and accessible. 

It’s necessary to note that I am biracial and fair-skinned Brandy didn’t necessarily “represent” me phenotypically any more than the original blonde-haired cartoon failed to. But representation is more than seeing yourself physically in the mainstream, it’s about validating the qualities and characteristics of what you find valuable in the world. The soundtrack to my childhood was my mother’s singing voice, her love of singing proudly rooted in Black vocal

tradition. Brandy’s Cinderella created a theatrical world where the enthusiastic riffs and scoops of my Mother’s voice, and of my own, could be seen as prolific. Where watching her dancing along to Bebe & Cece Winans in the kitchen while making dinner was considered high entertainment. It considered a reality where code-switching on the phone could be admired as skillful. The film affirmed for me that the ingenuity of Black culture, the inherent performativity of being Black was worthy of so many awards – at the very least, a Tony. 

The entertainment industry has always addressed diversity in waves, teetering back and forth between strict segregationist and “inclusive” casting trends. As of recent, we’re finding ourselves concerned again with the limitations and possibilities of diversity and colorblind casting, (I’m side-eyeing you, Bridgerton…) And though often overlooked, the same struggle for representation extends to the theater industry. Brandy’s Cinderella is perhaps the first musical theater revival to subvert traditional race roles in the theater so boldly, yet it has been intentionally and systematically hidden from the popular mainstream for almost the entirety of the film’s lifetime. 

There was a twenty-year window that Brandy’s Cinderella disappeared from the dominant social consciousness. From the 2013 Broadway production to the 2015 film (both starring white women in the titular role) you wouldn’t have known there was a Black Cinderella unless you were one of the lucky few who grew up with the VHS. The film wasn’t made available on any streaming platforms, nor was the soundtrack. 16 years later after Brandy’s Cinderella premiered, Cinderella was turned into a stage musical, starring two white actors as the leads. In the original cast, only one person of color, an East Asian actress, was cast in a speaking role. In 2014, Keke Palmer went on to replace the white actress who originated the role for a limited run. Keke was welcomed as the first African-American Disney Princess on Broadway but was quickly replaced by only white actresses after her run, and the original actress’s portrayal of Cinderella was nominated for a Tony Award. Because of lack of access to the film, I often felt required to prove that my memory of Brandy’s Cinderella didn’t exist in my fantasies. And in being asked to prove the film’s worthiness, so too did I have to convince myself and those around me that the proud Black parts of myself were valuable in the theater. 

If the 1997 Cinderella was one of my first theatrical loves, it was also one of my first theatrical heartbreaks. Watching the legacy of the film unfold has taught me an important lesson about the currency of performative whiteness. Brandy and Keke, despite how unique their Cinderellas were, were ultimately required to perform a darker-skinned facsimile of the mainstay 1950 cartoon original. Non-white people who portray female roles on stage are rarely given the opportunity to show up to a character fully as themselves. Female roles on the stage or in the film are designed to aspire to a recognizable standard of white womanhood – God forbid the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, or the rhythm of your dialect make that difficult. When studying classical voice in high school, I watched as the timbre of other Black girl’s voices were beat into submission to match a resonant, traditionally European sound, and who would be ranked and lauded based on their ability to mimic that standard.

Despite the 1997 Cinderella’s influence, White Cinderella has and continues to dominate the social consciousness. The next live-action Cinderella film to be produced after Brandy starred a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Lily James, in what felt like a pointed corrective measure to Brandy’s portrayal. How much does it do to produce Brandy’s Cinderella, when less than a generation later, a new version arrives that restores our institutional memory to that of the sterile whiteness of the original cartoon? How much “representation” does it provide, if the original cartoon is the only Cinderella available to greet you at the Disney parks? How can Black actors succeed on the theatrical stage, if their White counterparts will always get awards and flowers for playing the exact same roles? Having a shared cultural literacy around a piece of art is important. It communicates to us that what we understand to be valuable is recognized by the people and society around us. Despite how accepted Brandy’s Cinderella made me feel as a child, the values of the theater industry – an institution built on white supremacy – barred me from understanding that acceptance as truth. How do we continue to validate non-white theater when our institutional memory of it is so intentionally short-lived? 

And still, yet, Brandy’s Cinderella still isn’t listed under the Princess section of the Disney Plus app. I am frustrated by how long overdue the film is receiving its flowers. I am angry that the film and soundtrack have been made so inaccessible for so many years, while the White Cinderella has a castle at Disney World. I am hurt on behalf of my Black peers whose natural hair or braids were policed in performances for being “unprofessional” or “distracting”. I am resentful that the fantasy of Brandy’s Cinderella didn’t and couldn’t protect from the very real harm that Black women experience in the theater industry in any role they play. I feel foolish for all the times I didn’t feel beautiful on a stage, because in my delusion, I thought my Blackness prevented me from being so. 

My anger moves me to call for the rejection of the Disney Industrial Complex altogether. A few years ago it was announced that the live-action reboot of The Little Mermaid would star Black singer and actress Halle Bailey as Ariel. And while I am excited to see my favorite Disney princess re-imagined, I worry about the vitriol that will be directed at her for, yet again, not living up to the standard of the original white cartoon. Halle’s talent extends beyond her attempts to portray an animation that wasn’t originally designed to look like her. My wish for the film, and all future Disney revivals, is to see a version of Halle’s beauty that is allowed to exist outside of the template of the original. If Halle was given the opportunity to portray a new character – her voice and her dreadlocks limitless in their potential – what exciting and new possibilities could that create? 

The last time I remember watching Brandy’s Cinderella on VHS was with my Mom’s family, sometime around age 10. My cousins came to visit, and we piled onto our couch to watch the then-worn tape. I remember taking glances across the couch to my cousin, desperate to see a joy in her that matched my own, hoping to see visible signs of how much a Black Cinderella might mean to her. My mother, like any Black parent, understood the necessity of preparing young Black children to enter into a world that wouldn’t always reflect the truth of their worth back to them. Her support of that film communicated a lesson to me about the importance

of intra-community care. Her insistence that myself, my family, and friends be witness to stories that centered on Black people and Black history taught me to see the power that storytelling had to affirm and confirm one’s value. It has shaped me into a community-minded person, someone who gains energy from investing in the health of the people around me. This lesson is the guiding force behind all that artistically drives me. As I grow into my artistry, I hope to surround myself with creatives who will conjure new ways to embody and express beauty, femininity, and power in the theater, and whose work aims not to assimilate, but to liberate.

Thai Harris Singer (she/her) is a playwright, writer, and historian. She currently resides on occupied Lenape land, now known as Brooklyn, NY and is a proud 5th generation Brooklynite. Her work is curious about exploring racial performance theory and ancestral legacy through theater, food, movement, words, and song.

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