School Cancels Musical Amid Racial Casting Controversy

A New York high school has canceled a planned musical production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” after a student group protested the casting of a white classmate in the role of Esmeralda. The student activists asserted that the school had “whitewashed” the character and repeatedly passed over minority classmates for prominent roles.

On Jan. 24, Ithaca City School District officials announced that they were canceling the Ithaca High School spring musical production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and would mount a new project in its stead.

“As you may already be aware, The Hunchback of Notre Dame will not be performed this spring,” district officials said in a statement, according to The Washington Times. “In lieu of the planned musical, another collaborative project will provide young people and our community the opportunity to engage together while fully expressing the talents of our students.”

The stage production, originally slated for April 13, was a planned rendition 2014 musical inspired by the 1996 Disney animated film and the 19th century novel by Victor Hugo.

Students United Ithaca, an activist group comprised of five students, had blasted the decision to cast a white student in the role of Esmerelda, a Romani gypsy. Senior Maddi Carroll, an African-American member of the group, quit the production in protest.

“It shows you that the theater wasn’t made for you,” Carroll told the Ithaca Journal. “And it shows you that, if you can’t get the parts that are written for you, what parts are you going to get?”

On Jan. 8, SUI issued a letter criticizing school officials for selecting a Caucasian actress to play an ethnically diverse role. They also circulated a petition to the student body.

“Esmeralda is a Roma, part of an oppressed class of people … At best, this is cultural appropriation,” the students wrote in Tompkins Weekly. “At worst, it is whitewashing, a racist casting practice which has its roots in minstrelsy.”

SUI added: “[W]e want to stress that the talented young woman who was cast in this role is a stellar actor, singer and dancer … Our concern is not with her, but with the fact that in terms of demographics, she is wrong for this role.”

The students asked that the musical either be changed or recast. They also called for Ithaca High School musical director Robert Winans to be replaced with a “socially conscious director.”

“It’s not just about wanting directors of color,” SUI member Eamon Makepeace told Ithaca.com. “It’s about the consciousness of those directors. If you have a conscious, white director, great. Throw them in there. But there can be people of color that cater to whiteness as well.”

Junior Ari Cummings asserted that students in the school’s theater program had previously expressed concerns to school officials that minority classmates were not being cast in prominent roles.

“Every time we try and bring to their attention this isn’t the first time this has happened, they always seem to state this is the first time this has ever come up, that it’s the first time they’ve heard of this,” Cummings said.

SUI told Fox News that their “endgame is a performing arts program with more unity, more inclusion, and musical where we can all experience the joy and bonding of inclusive performing arts following best theatrical practices.”

Sources: Fox News, Ithaca.com, Ithaca JournalTompkins WeeklyThe Washington Times / Featured Image: Bagaball/Flickr / Embedded Images: Wallace Worsley/Wikimedia Commons, Stilfehler/Wikimedia Commons