If you ask a young child to describe the heroine from “Beauty and the Beast,” they might reference the slim, fair-skinned Disney princess in the memorable blue-and-white dress from the animated movie or the petite Emma Watson from its live-action remake.
The production’s Tony Award-nominated director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, said Jones’s presence has made an impact on the audience from the very beginning. After the cast sang about the most beautiful girl in town during the opening number, Jones stepped on stage. “Little Black girls in the audience screamed out, ‘Is that Belle?’” Dodge recounted. “And it’s not just a Black Belle who fits into the size 2 replica dress, but a plus-size Belle. So [all] little girls can dream big about them being princesses, too.”
Dodge said that when she offered Jones the starring role, “it just completely threw her for a loop that a queer, plus-size, curvy, dark-skinned Black woman was going to play a classic Disney princess. It was to me a thrill of learning how to navigate the story in this retelling. It was so apparent to me that it was long overdue to celebrate body types of all sizes.”
Know Your Value recently spoke with Jones and Dodge about what it’s like to put a modern spin on a beloved story.
Once upon a time…
After Dodge was invited to direct the production, she knew she was uninterested in telling the story in the same way it’s been told for the last 30 years: “The first thing I did was read the script and think, ‘How do I smuggle some deeper meaning to this tale as old as time?’” Her husband, writer Tony Dodge, immediately suggested that Jones play Belle.
Dodge and Jones had previously worked together in a 2016 production of “110 in the Shade” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. Interestingly, the female romantic lead in that show, Tracy Lynn Olivera, was also larger than the typical size 2. Olivera thinks that performer size should be a non-issue: "The more people of all sizes see themselves represented on stage, the less stigma is attached to size, the better off everyone is.... Let's just make casting real body types the norm."
When a performer exited "110 in the Shade" about a week before performances were scheduled to begin, Jones sent in a video audition. Dodge selected Jones to fill that spot and the two have stayed in touch ever since.
Dodge invited Jones to “audition” for Belle but didn’t disclose that Jones was the only performer auditioning for the role. Dodge said, “I wanted to make sure that vocally that she has the range of this particular role. She is a soulful, chest voice singer, but man, does she have an incredible range. And so she came in, she sang, she read and I was completely gob smacked. I was like, ‘This is it.’”
“I never imagined I would play a Disney princess in my entire life,” Jones said. “I mean, there were never any Disney princesses who looked like me…. It’s just a dream to do a show like this that I never thought I would be cast in. I’m living my musical theater dreams.”
“It's so easy for [Belle] to be one note. For her to just be the pretty girl,” said Jones. “I think that there's so much more to Belle than just being beautiful. She's smart, she's funny, she's witty, she's creative, she's passionate. And I think I bring all of that to the character.”
Dodge tailored the production’s depiction of Belle to Jones’s strengths: “She is a ferocious, smart, vulnerable actor. So we made [Belle] heroic.”
Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter for Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” was the first woman to write an animated Disney movie; she was invested in the idea of giving Belle agency and power. “When Linda Woolverton wrote the script for the animated feature, she took responsibility for elevating the Disney princess by actually giving her objectives and giving her activities that had never been before aspiring to a princess. Reading books and caring for her father—those were big. Those were huge changes to the Disney canon,” Dodge said.
A “ferocious, smart, vulnerable” Belle needs an equally “ferocious, smart, vulnerable” Beast. For that role, Dodge cast Evan Ruggiero, a performer who lost a leg to cancer. She said, “It was really important to me to find [Belle] a formidable partner in the journey and to have somebody be transformed and imperfect in the eyes of a sort of cultural acceptance of beauty, of what perfection is.”
When a theater licenses the rights to produce a show, it agrees to perform the material exactly as written, so Dodge and the cast had to get creative with their interpretation. Dodge said, “We were able to mine the script with a contemporary lens, even though we're telling it in fairy tale language. So we're telling a modern story. And it all emanates from Belle.”
Even Belle’s costumes reflect her contemporary spirit. Dodge worked with costume designer Ivania Stack to “celebrate” Jones’s body. Jones said that the top half of Belle’s opening number is a nod to the animated character’s “quintessential blue dress,” but the bottom half resembles “harem pants,” which changes the costume from a dress to a jumpsuit.
“And I'm wearing red Doc Martens throughout the entire show, including the ballgown,” said Jones. “It’s bada**. I mean, ain’t no girl going out in the woods in a skirt!”
A happy ending?
There is an inherent risk in moving away from the feel of Disney’s original concept for “Beauty and the Beast.” Namely, will the production still make money? Will people buy into the concept and purchase tickets?
According to Dodge, the Olney was “brave” to produce an unexpected interpretation of the show during the holiday season. Typically, regional theaters schedule family-friendly productions in December because they are likely to sell enough tickets to finance smaller, riskier productions throughout the year. Olivera said that Washington, D.C. theaters have been "tremendous" in making casting decisions based on artistic merit rather than the bottom line. In standing behind Dodge’s vision, the Olney took a risk with its biggest money-making show.
The risk seems to have paid off. Joshua Ford, the director of communications and marketing for the Olney, said that the theater has been “overwhelmed by the response and how strongly the production has resonated with our audience and beyond.” The theater has been running a #IamBeauty social media campaign to encourage audiences to share what makes them feel beautiful; Jones gained 1,000 new Instagram followers in four days.
“The response has been nuts,” Jones said. “I've had people from Scotland, Ireland, Amsterdam reach out to me saying, ‘You're starting a revolution for women around the world.’ And I'm like, ‘This is my job. I get to go and play pretend.’ But for the world that’s seeing me in that ‘dress,’ it's so much more.”