Kaena Kekoa as Jasmine // Photo: Deen van Meer

Into A Whole New World: A Q&A with Aladdin’s Kaena Kekoa

“Jasmine knows what she wants and she is determined to get what she wants, she stood out to me because she is a sign of empowerment for young girls.”

Kaena Kekoa said to me over the phone as we discussed her role in Aladdin. The Broadway national tour of the play is making its way through cities across the country to bring a whole new world to each audience, taking the Kennedy Center stage on July 18. While many remember the classic 90s Disney film, the stage version has chosen to rewrite Jasmine in order to give her more “umph” as Kekoa says. On Tap was able to speak with her about her start in theatre and what it means to play such a well-known character.

On Tap: When did your interest in the theatre first begin?
Kaena Kekoa: I got into the theatre when I was 11, mostly church musicals and community theatre. I have been singing for most of my life. 

OT: What brought you to Aladdin?
KK: I went to an open call at the end of January 2019 in Honolulu, when I auditioned for the show. I had moved back home after college, they had an open call for Frozen, Lion King and Aladdin. I had no intention of going because I was already home and I missed it and wasn’t planning on leaving. I thought it would be a fun thing to do, I got called back for Princess Jasmine in mid-February, which felt so fast!

OT: Why were you interested in playing the part of Princess Jasmine?
KK: Honestly, I had no intention of doing any of it, it kind of just happened for me. She is a role model for young girls, especially in this time where girls need a strong independent woman figure. Especially on the stage, they get to come to the show and see her. She knows what she wants and she is determined to get what she wants. She stood out to me because she is a sign of empowerment for young girls. 

OT: In terms of the power dynamic, Jasmine tends to get pushed away as a female, how did you approach this?
KK: In the show, we give her some umph, she was written with more umph than the animated film. She has her friends who push her, we have three attendants instead of a tiger, who push her to run away. “Love comes to those who go and find it, and if you dream then stand behind it,” she really takes that on in this show. She is determined to find what she wants. Even though her father is telling her what to do, she is still determined to go out and be a better person for her people and for herself. She’s not just another Disney princess, she has developed [much more].

OT: Do you think Jasmine’s story as a character is important? Why?
KK: Oh most definitely! Mostly because she kind of wears the pants, she is the only Disney princess who wears pants, actually. She takes charge of her own life. In this production, Jasmine is one of the only female principles in this show and she is surrounded by men telling her what to do. [It’s] relatable to this day and age, and it’s a story for all, not just for the little ones. 

OT: Did you feel pressure playing this character that is so well known and well loved by anyone who grew up with Disney?
KK: Honestly, no. I love taking on a character and figuring them out and adding my own flavor to it, but I didn’t feel as much pressure with Jasmine. As a woman of color, I love to represent that on stage because it is so important. 

OT: Do you ever get pre-show jitters/how do you get past them?
KK: I definitely had pre-show jitters for the first month straight. I’ve never been part of a Broadway national tour. I had a mentor in high school who told me to turn my nervousness into excitement and that will give you the energy to go on stage and take people to a “whole new world,” [laughs] if you will. 

OT: What are your favorite productions, what is your dream role?
KK: Hmm, good question! A Chorus Line, everyone in the theatre can relate to the first song, “I Hope I Get It,” and that song runs through your head and the story overall, getting to know all the different characters and their stories is just so touching and moving. Honestly, I probably don’t have a dream role, I feel like they are the ones we don’t know about yet, whether they are written or not, I haven’t played it yet so I guess I wouldn’t know what it is. I can [also] tell you that Princess Jasmine is my dream come true. 

OT: What advice would you give to anyone coming into this business? Something you wish you had known?
KK: Hmm, I guess I would say to be kind to everyone, and I kind of knew to be kind to everyone, but it’s something that not a lot of people know how to do. There are so many people working hard behind the scenes making sure you are safe and that your show works, be thankful and say thank you and express that to everyone backstage. Express your gratitude, because if they weren’t there then you wouldn’t have a show. 

“Aladdin” will be featured at the Kennedy Center from Thursday, July 18 to Saturday, September 7. For more information and for tickets please visit here.

John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org