While it may be a tale as old as time, it’s a tale that hadn’t been told quite like this before. Jade Jones is currently starring as Belle in Beauty in the Beast at Olney Theatre Center in Maryland for the second time—and Jones doesn’t look like the cartoon princess from childhood. They are Black, non-binary, and plus-sized. They reflect audiences of today, and maybe that’s why photos of them, decked out in a purple and gold-accented ballgown, have gone viral.
“I think the reason why our production of Beauty and the Beast got so much attention is because [director] Marcia Milgrom Dodge cast real life people,” Jones explains. “We weren't trying to create a fairytale; we were trying to tell a real story. I think that's why people were so receptive to it. As soon as photos started coming out, I was getting personal messages from people in Australia, Africa, South Korea. I never expected that.”
Beauty and the Beast, the musical based on the Disney film, is running at Olney Theatre until January 1. With audiences in Maryland and fans from around the world responding to their work, the influence this production has had on Jones is noticeable. Having worked professionally for nine years as an actor in the D.C. region, their surprise at the level of love the production continues to receive is palpable
“Although I knew I had what it takes to lead a show, I never saw myself as this kind of lead, as leading a show like this,” Jones shares after taking a deep breath. “And now with this, it is allowing me to look at myself in that way. I'm now having an inner revelation within myself, like, ‘Jade, you can really do this, you don't have to just be the walk-on role, the funny side character. You can actually do it.’”
It's a powerful affirmation for audiences, too. When last December’s COVID wave brought an early end to the first run of the production, it wasn’t long before Olney Theatre knew they had to bring it back. Ticketholders for the cancelled performances reached out with mounting disappointment and the theatre’s Artistic Director Jason Loewith suddenly had to field questions about the musical's future. Jones found out Beauty and the Beast would be remounted about two weeks after the first closed.
“The fact that a lot of people didn't get to see it the first time around is the main reason why I wanted to come back for this remount,” Jones shares. “It was really important for Evan and I both tocome back and give other people an opportunity to see this story. We're a regional theater in Maryland, and it was about a month and a half run. People didn't really get the opportunity to say, ‘Okay, let me get on the computer and get a ticket and go to Maryland.” This time, Beauty and the Beast is running for two months.
For most of today’s audiences, all the heroines and princesses of childhood fairytales were white, thin, unnaturally proportioned, and traditionally feminine. “We know Belle as a skinny white girl,” Jones says. That is why they identified more often with male-presenting characters like Aladdin and Simba.
It wasn’t until working on the Olney production that Jones was able to find how they can relate to Belle. “In the text, you see how she dismisses Gaston and doesn't really give two shits about anybody else except her father,” Jones explains. “She has a tough exterior. It’s her protection of her father, protection of her family. She stands true to her values, the conviction she carries about what she believes is right. And her being a teacher, but also opening herself up and being vulnerable. She’s willing to learn,willing to go into a world that she knows nothing about.” And it's those characteristics, often understated in other performances, that Jones amplifies.
That edge that Jones sees in Belle is also communicated to the audience through Ivania Stack’s costumes. Jones spends the first act in a blue jumpsuit and red Doc Marten boots. Jones is clearly a fan of the outfit, calling it “fierce” and commenting offhand, “She's rocking this half sleeve now, which is kind of dope because she got in a big fight.”
And then comes the shift to the vulnerability that Jones also sees in Belle. In Act Two, “she comes out in this pink gown given to her by Madame. And it's so sexy and so beautiful. Oh my god, it's amazing—and, like, pink is Jade's least favorite color,” Jones shares. “But it’s such a beautiful, soft moment. She, for the first time, cares about what she looks like.” Jones begins to mime nervous primping as they pretend to finesse their appearance. “’She’s like, ‘I don't want to wear this dress, but do I look good?’ It's really soft."
It’s surprising to hear Jones speak about this moment as the one when Belle begins to care about how she looks. Other characters in the musical often comment on Belle’s beauty, but Jones’ Belle doesn’t pay the comments any attention—until Belle puts on the pink dress and allows herself to be vulnerable. It’s a moment that’s meant a lot to Jones: “As a nonbinary artist, I got to get in touch with a more feminine side that I kind of pushed away.”
While playing Belle has given Jones the chance to explore their femininity, it has opened up doors on the other side of the gender spectrum. “I have been getting a lot of calls in for male-presenting roles, which is pretty cool,” says Jones, a genuine smile on their face.
But the moment they most look forward every night? Emerging from the double doors with the princely Beast, played by Evan Ruggiero, as the song “Beauty and the Beast” is being sung. Jones isn’t the only barrier-breaking member of the cast; Ruggiero has a prosthetic due to losing part of his leg to cancer as a teenager. “In the show, I end in a ballgown, which has a purple base and gold accents, and he ends in his prince costume with his one prosthetic leg exposed. And it's so beautiful,” says Jones. “Every night when they open the double doors, the first thing you see is us in our prince and princess costumes, but also us as human. It’s a powerful image, and I see people in the audience with their jaws dropped and their hands on their chest, and I'm like, ‘Let's give it to them.’”
For Jones, that beat in the show captures the characters’ humanities. It reflects what the team in this Beauty and Beast feel people often miss about its title characters: they’re not perfect archetypes, they are people that anyone should be able to relate to. “I want to set the record straight—these are two outsiders,” remarks Jones, emphatically. “It's not just a pretty girl and a beast fall in love, and then they become prince and princess. That's not all it is. There's an entire arc to both of these characters.”