When Disney announced recently that Halle Bailey, a teenage African-American actress, was going to play the lead role as Ariel in the live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid,” Patty Smithey thought that was really cool.
The idea, she figured, made perfect sense. And why wouldn’t she? After all, before Disney chose Halle Bailey, the New Tampa Players chose Patty Smithey.
An African-American actress herself, Smithey has been working hard to perfect the role of Ariel, which she was selected to play in the upcoming New Tampa Players (NTP) production of the 1989 Disney animated blockbuster.
The show opens tonight at 8 p.m. at the University Area Community Development Center (CDC) at 14013 N. 22nd St. in Tampa. There are two showings on Saturday, one on Sunday, and then showings the weekend of August 2-4.
For the past month, Smithey, who lives in Land O’Lakes, has been rehearsing with the rest of the NTP, a local acting troupe, at the CDC.
An acting hopeful in middle and high school, Smithey set aside her thespian dreams when she went off to college at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Smithey earned a degree at FSU in International Affairs, studying abroad in places like Panama, Prague, Poland and Croatia, as she focused on human rights.
The acting bug, however, never went away. And, at the age of 25, Smithey is returning to her first love.
“It’s my big comeback,” Smithey says, with a chuckle. “I definitely feel honored I was chosen for this role.”
When she auditioned in May, she considered herself a longshot for any role. “The Little Mermaid” wasn’t exactly a movie rich with non-white characters.
On the paperwork for NTP, she put down a number of roles she felt suited to play, like Ursula, or one of Ariel’s sisters, or, she jokes, “maybe a fish in the background.”
She also, on a whim, wrote down Ariel.
Nora Paine, the president of NTP, says the troupe didn’t go into the audition process looking for a white actress to play the role of Ariel. She says that is never part of the process. “We looked for the person who could best embody the character,” Paine says. “For Ariel, we were looking for that innocence, a teenage kind of spunk, for lack of a better word.”
Because the movie revolves around a mermaid’s yearning to explore a new, forbidden world, the role had to be filled by someone who embodied Ariel’s way of looking at that world with total awe.
“Patty had the facial expression of Ariel, the innocent and the curious face,” Paine says. “She did really, really well.”
Not to mention the voice. Smithey took on the movie’s iconic ballad, “Part of Your World,” for her audition, considered one of the best Disney songs ever, and nailed it.
The role of Ariel was filled by someone who had the complete package that director Derek Baxter, choreographer Anne Tully, musical director G. Frank Meekins and Paine were looking for all along.
“I knew I could sing,” Smithey says. “But, when I got that call, wow, it was just amazing.”
Smithey’s enthusiasm for her role, and the significance of being a black Ariel, has not been tempered by some of the backlash Disney has received in social media for also picking an African-American for the role.
There have been hurtful memes passed around, and the hashtag #NotMyAriel actually trended on Twitter.
“I saw some of that on social media, and I was shocked,” Smithey said. “I mean, where are these people coming from, that they would be that upset about this mythical creature (being played by a black woman). Some of the stuff I saw was very negative.”
Smithey hasn’t received any backlash, and instead prefers to think of it as inspired and inclusive casting by Paine and the NTP.
The controversy over Disney’s decision has been noticed by Paine as well. While she admits that NTP may have smiled a bit when Disney made the same decision NTP did while casting, she says the debate over inclusivity in theater is a good one. She said diversity was a strong theme in many of the speeches at this year’s Tony Awards as well.
“We’re really glad it can be a national conversation, and a local one as well,” Paine says.
She says the NTP has always strived for inclusivity, no matter the production, no matter the role. The troupe has hosted productions like the Penguin Project, which provided opportunities for those with special needs, and inserted a host of actors into non-traditional parts for other productions.
In 2016, NTP reached out to residents in the University Area, where most of the troupe’s productions are performed — until their new home in New Tampa is completed — and asked them what they wanted to see. Residents in the area, which has a large African-American population, told the NTP they would love for their children to come to productions that had actors that looked like they do.
In 2017, NTP heeded that advice and did a production of the “The Wiz”, which re-imagines “The Wizard of Oz” with a primarily African-American cast.
Choosing Smithey was nothing out of the ordinary for NTP.
“ I think it’s great how they are modernizing the role,” Smithey said. “Maybe other little girls and little boys can see that anyone can be a princess or a prince.”
Smithey will lead 52 other castmates in what will be one of NTP’s biggest productions yet.
NTP is bringing in a choreographer from the Shinobi School in Temple Terrace, which focuses on acrobatic performances relating to parkour (movements used in military obstacle course training), ninja warriors and the circus arts.
“It’s going to add a circus twist to Disney,” Paine says.
Long pieces of silk cloth will hang from above to provide the illusion of being underwater, with performers artfully working their way around the silky streams.
“This is new, as far as I can tell, combining a traditional Broadway musical and circus arts done by a non-professional company,” Paine says.
“The Little Mermaid” opens Friday, July 26, at 8 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit NewTampaPlayers.org.