‘Aladdin’ star talks about being a Fil-Afghan American ‘Jasmine’
CHICAGO—Twenty-year-old Senzel Gunida-Ahmady is the third and youngest Filipina thus far, to play Disney’s Jasmine of Aladdin on Broadway following the success of actresses Arielle Jacobs and Lissa de Guzman who took on the role during the 2018 U.S. tour.
“It was challenging,” she admits. “I put my own spin on Jasmine. Being the youngest Jasmine, I think I portray a more innocent version of her character,” Senzel said.
“Playing Jasmine is a mix of fun and really hard, but I learned a lot about the industry,” she added.
Her contract with the North American production of Aladdin began on October 2022. Senzel’s contract is until October 2023. That demands a grueling eight shows a week, May 17-28 at Chicago’s Cadillac Theater. Next stop is Kansas City, Kansas.
Why are there three Filipinos who were chosen to play Jasmine?
“A lot of Filipinos sing and it so happens, there is a shortage of people of color (POC) actresses. Since Filipinos have black hair, they match the look of the character,” she surmised.
Growing up, her mother’s side of the family loved to sing. “The entire family would put up a performance by all of the kids for the parents,” she recalled.
They would sing hit songs of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Her mother’s side of the family are Seventh Day Adventists. They invited Senzel to sing religious songs at their church because “they liked her singing so much.”
She says she has the best of both worlds, being half Afghan from her father, Azim Ahmady, and half Filipina from her mother, Hazel Gunida. Her mom was born and raised in Cebu. Senzel has two younger sisters, both 16 years old.
Her mom was studying optometry and her dad was a pre-med student at Southwestern University in Cebu where they met. After four years of living in the Philippines, her father learned to speak fluent Visayan. “They would speak to each other in Visayan,” Senzel said.
“My mom converted to Islam when she met my dad. I didn’t get exposed much to the Filipino culture growing up,” Senzel admitted. Hazel’s mother-in-law taught her how to make Afghan food so she prepares mostly Afghan food for the family such as Chicken Kabob and Bolani, which is a bread with potato.
Afterwards, her parents moved to the U.S. and her mom gave birth to Senzel. Her mother put aside her studies in optometry to take care of Senzel while her father went through his medical residency at Texas A & M University. He is now a practicing emergency and family physician in California.
Senzel graduated from high school in 2020 during the peak of COVID-19. Senzel grew up singing pop and jazz. She sang in musical productions in high school such as “Elle Woods” in “Legally Blonde.”
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In 2020, she won the vocal division of Solano Symphony Orchestra’s Young Artist Competition and was one of their three featured performers.
Subsequently, she moved to New York to study vocal performance in musical theater at New York University where she played the title role in a theatrical production of “Amelie.”
As a student at this university, she was required to take a COVID test every week.
All of her college classes were online. “It was tough to adapt. A few times a year, we could use the university practice rooms,” she said.
During her third year at NYU, she took a break from school when she was chosen to play the role of Jasmine on Broadway, her first professional role.
Senzel says she may finish her degree online but is not sure about her plans afterwards.
How does she connect with her Filipino side?
She visited the Philippines a second time in 2019 with her family for one month. She and her family spent a weekend at Boracay and Palawan.
“These places are underrated. Everyone thinks Hawaii is the best tourist destination [but it’s not.] Palawan and Boracay are serene and beautiful,” she explained.
Senzel says that she is equally comfortable with both sides of her heritage. “But no matter which side [I’m interacting with], I feel like I don’t fully belong. I don’t feel Afghan or Filipino enough,” she explained.
“(But) I’m lucky to experience both beautiful cultures,” she added.