A high school in New York has pulled its musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame after social justice student activists complained about a leading role being handed to a white student.
“Protests of the production began when an African-American student quit Ithaca High School’s musical production due to the role of Esmeralda being given to a white classmate,” Fox News reported. “Student activists then banded together under the umbrella of Students United Ithaca …”
Caving to social justice activists
Shortly after the Board of Education of the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) pulled the musical, it was replaced with a new project, but signs of a possible problem over the casting not reflecting “diversity” or “inclusiveness” were evident before the roles were even announced.
“When Ithaca High School announced last fall that the spring musical would be The Hunchback of Notre Dame, high school senior Annabella Mead-VanCort's mother, Eliza VanCort, wrote a letter to school administrators,” the Ithaca Journal reported. “Mother and daughter were thrilled that a musical with a leading role of a female of color would be performed on the school's stage.”
After they warned administrators in late November that they would be keeping an eye on the casting for the musical, only to find out that a white student was handed the role of Esmeralda – representing a Romani gypsy living in Paris in the 15th century – the protests began.
A 17-year-old African American senior at Ithaca High School, Maddi Carroll – who is a member of Students United Ithaca, with three of its five members quitting the musical – also landed role in the ensemble, but she quit because the student playing Esmeralda was white.
“It shows you that theater wasn’t made for you," Carroll insisted in her letter, as stated in 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?”
Her written protest incited Anabella Mead-VanCort to rally with other Students United Ithaca students and write letters to the school demanding more cultural diversity in casting, and after officials received the student and community outrage, the musical was cancelled last Wednesday.
The student activist group had their complaint letter published in a weekly publication in the form of an opinion piece.
“Unfortunately, it has also come to our attention that the casting of this musical is antithetical to the very message which beats throughout the heart of the musical itself,” the op-ed in Tompkins Weekly states. “We speak, specifically, of the casting choice of the role of Esmerelda. Before we speak further, we want to stress that the talented young woman who was cast in this role is a stellar actor, singer, and dancer. She has worked hard to hone her craft and the IHS stage, or any stage, would be lucky to have her. Our concern is not with her, but with the fact that in terms of demographics, she is the wrong choice for this role.”
Initially, the ICSD informed students that a replacement for the musical would not take place because of time constraints, but district officials announced on Monday that a collaborative project will be produced in place of The Hunchback of Notre Dame – a sign to many that it caved in to the social justice activists’ demands.
“[The project] will provide young people and our community the opportunity to engage together while fully expressing the talents of our students," the ICSD statement reads. "A new project is currently being discussed by students, families and educators. This project will also engage the talents and skills of students previously cast."
Annabella, whose letter sparked much of the pressure on the school, was ecstatic that a flood of letters from the community was received by Tompkins Weekly, but after Students United Ithaca met with school administrators, she expressed her disappointment at their initial response.
“There was an amazing reception; it was so clear the community was on board with this,” the social justice activist student recounted, according to the Ithaca Journal before lamenting the administrators’ reactions. “We didn’t really get anywhere. We just talked and there just was a lot of lip service and a lot of talk about the conversations we’re going to have about this.”
But Annabella and fellow students did not give up their fight for so-called “inclusiveness.”
“Students later spoke at a community Martin Luther King Jr. Day event, then at a meeting of the Ithaca High School Board of Education on Jan. 23,” the Ithaca Journal’s Maggie Gilroy informed. “The next day, officials announced the production had been cancelled.”
Students dictating to officials?
Maddi then indicated that the district had met all of her group’s demands.
"Our goal was not just to shut down the musical," Carroll stressed, according to the Ithaca Journal. "We want to get a socially conscious director to replace the current director so that everybody can participate.”
Carroll and Annabella Mead-VanCort believe they are starting a social justice movement at the school as champions of diversity.
“This issue is bigger than one part in one musical in one place," Carroll added. "It’s very, very systemic and is very deeply rooted in how we learn and what we do every day. So, we next want to go to the school. We want to branch out from the arts to the school in general and we want to try and make a change.”
In the name of “inclusiveness,” students now appear to be dictating not only what musicals are produced and how they are casted, but who will be hired to lead the school’s performing arts program.
“On Jan. 25, Students United Ithaca posted a list of demands for the Ithaca City School District on the group's Facebook page, [and] the list was amended after the students learned of the cancellation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Gilroy recounted. “The demands in the 10-point list include removing Winans as director of the Boynton Middle School and Ithaca High School musicals. The students have proposed the school hire Joey Steinhagen, the artistic director and resident director of Running to Places Theatre Company, as director of the next musical.”
Assuming the role of the school’s human resources department, the social justice group voiced their advocacy for Steinhagen to replace the staff member responsible for casting the white student.
"Joey has a concrete plan and has said he is confident he can mount an inclusive and wonderful show," the Students United Ithaca Facebook post states. "Joey is the hero we need now to [unite] our community."
Then the litany of demands and accusations continued to flow:
"STOP ignoring and denying that you have created a white-centered program run by white adults for the benefit of white children," Students United Ithaca added in their list of demands. "White children should also be educated about interrupting these practices of White supremacy. Hollow lip service about equality is shameful and the eyes of our concerned community are now focused on you."
Now acting as if it is Ithaca High School’s advisory board, Students United Ithaca is slated to meet with ICSD administration to discuss future performing arts plans.
Carroll is determined to continue her group’s “inclusion” movement at the school, and she is taking action steps to make sure that her brand of diversity is reflected in all performing arts casting in the future.
“One step towards creating a musical that is inclusive to all students, Maddi suggested, is active recruitment,” Gilroy noted. “She included herself as about five to 10 people of color in The Hunchback of Notre Dame's cast of about 40.”