Diana Huey, the "Little Mermaid" star whose struggle with anti-Asian racism has sparked a national conversation about diversity in the theater, doesn't usually get stagefright.
But on Tuesday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center, the butterflies returned. Huey found herself with a new case of nerves as she faced a packed house of theatergoers whose sky-high expectations were fueled by the positive press she's received in the past several days following a Buffalo News article about criticism she and the show received because of her ethnicity.
In the original animated Disney film, Ariel appeared to be Caucasian. But as many have pointed out, that character also was a cartoon depiction of a mythical mermaid who could communicate with talking sea creatures.
Huey, who performs in the role of Ariel through Sunday at Shea's, took a break on Thursday from a busy schedule of media interviews to chat with The News about the feedback she's been getting from fans, her newfound stagefright and the lessons she has learned from speaking out.
Q: What have the last few days been like for you?
A: It's kind of a whirlwind. I've never experienced anything like this before. I've been getting such great responses from people and great messages from people saying they feel like there's a glimmer of hope for them... It's the most incredible thing that my story and my journey can help inspire people to continue on theirs.
Q: Has the pain of your negative experience with racist feedback faded away a bit this week?
A: Yeah it has. It also has given a bad experience I had before such a bigger purpose. This ugly thing I experienced has turned into a beautiful conversation. If I had to go through that to get to this point, I see the meaning of it and am grateful for it. I've learned so much from talking about it and from other people taking to me about their feelings. I'm learning so much, and I feel like it's going to make me a stronger person and a stronger artist.
Q: What are some of the things you've learned?
A: I've just learned about standing up for yourself, how important it is, and to believe in yourself. Speaking up for myself has been really great. What would have done before was say, 'Well, someone said something mean and I'm going to let it roll off and say that's how it is.' I for one have never been very good at speaking against people, so this has been a good lesson on how to do that in the right way.
Q: Could you feel the love from the Buffalo crowd on opening night?
A: That first night ... I was really nervous. I felt as nervous as I did the very first time we had an audience, but in a very different way. I was feeling so much pressure to prove that this story that's going viral, is she even worth it? I was very nervous.
But once we started I could feel the love in the room, and it was a really special show for me. For the curtain call there was definitely a very loud outpouring of love… I was definitely fighting back bursting into tears. I might have cried a little bit.
Q: Any closing thoughts as you wrap up your time in Buffalo?
A: It's been a very humbling experience and I'm very, very appreciative of the support that I've been getting. It's beyond anything I thought would happen. I'm happy to be a part of a conversation that I think is important and I hope that things will continue to get better for everybody. Especially in theater and the arts, this should be a place where we can be diverse and open and free and expressive. So I hope that continues to get better.