Friday, Dec. 4–Sunday, Dec. 20
Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh
As Destiny Diamond looked around the room during the callbacks for Cinderella at Raleigh Little Theatre, she knew the odds were stacked against her. In the 31 prior productions of the holiday classic, the title role had always been sung by a soprano, and Diamond, a senior at N.C. State University, is a second alto—the lowest-pitched and rarest of female voices.
Then there was the matter of race. Since 1984, Cinderella had always been portrayed by a white actor at Raleigh Little Theatre. This was the second year in a row that Diamond was the only black actor that directors Rod and Nancy Rich called back to re-audition for the role.
“I knew I sounded so different from the other girls,” Diamond recalls. “I didn’t think they would want to change Cinderella that much.” But this Friday night, she goes onstage as the first black actor to play the fairy-tale heroine at RLT.
“The competition was particularly stiff this year,” says Rod Rich. “But as an actress, Destiny’s very good. She’s energetic, and she brings a newness to the part that goes well beyond the fact of her ethnicity.”
According to Rich, the competition among the six finalists finally came down to one passage in one song—“Love Duet”, which late artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons and former musical director Suann Strickland wrote for Jim Eiler’s 1965 Prince Street Players adaptation. That version isn’t the same as the three most popular iterations of the story: Disney’s 1950 animated film, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 musical and Disney’s other take, director Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live-action film.
“Love Duet” has tight harmonies with some dissonance, “as sometimes happens in love affairs,” Rich explains. “And Destiny just made it her own.”
Diamond remembered the tune from her first Cinderella audition. “I was terrified of it because it was out of my range,” she says. “All the other girls were sopranos.” Making this bold departure in front of RLT veteran Harrison Fisher, a musical director unfamiliar with Diamond’s voice, did nothing to calm her nerves.
“I didn’t think he was going to like my sound, but I just knew not to compromise,” she says. In a gutsy move, she belted the love song while the sopranos trilled on high. “I just brought it where I fit in,” she recalls, “and I guess it worked.”
Cinderella isn’t Diamond’s first appearance on local stages. After being cast in ensemble roles in Rent and Chicago at N.C. State’s University Theatre, she auditioned for RLT’s Hairspray in 2014, and was cast as Mimi in North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s Rent.
Then came a phone call from Lauren Kennedy, executive director at Theatre Raleigh, who wanted to know if Diamond would play one of the title characters in last summer’s production of Dreamgirls. The show pushed the actor, who had no formal vocal training, to develop as a singer.
“I’m still trying to find my voice,” she says. “Sometimes I think people look at me and expect me to sound a certain way because I’m black. I don’t want to produce a stereotypical ‘black girl’ sound. I want to sound like me. And I still don’t even really know what that is yet.”
Diamond’s casting in a role played for decades by white actors marks a meridian in the ongoing struggle for black artists to find equal opportunity on regional stages. Many directors still see roles like Cinderella as the automatic province of one ethnic group or another, as Diamond has already experienced in her brief career. Though she recalls with satisfaction University Theatre’s all-black production of Walking Across Egypt in 2014, it came after she had given up on the on-campus group.
“The shows and the scripts were never for people of color,” Diamond says. “I left because I felt I wasn’t getting nourished as an artist. I had to find other places where I could learn.”
Patrick Torres, RLT’s artistic director, hails Diamond’s casting as an organic step in diversity for the company. “We really look for ways to diversify—but to also do that honestly,” he says. “Destiny came in and made a really strong choice with her song and her audition. It was that choice that set her apart from everyone else.”