Ithaca, NY, is a notoriously liberal town, and is the home of Cornell University.

Ithaca High School’s spring musical was “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” A story whose message is one of inclusiveness and acceptance should be welcomed and encouraged.

Alas…

A white actress was cast for the role of Esmerelda, prompting a student black actress to quite the play, saying, “It shows you that theater wasn’t made for you. And it shows you that, if you can’t get the parts that are written for you, what parts are you going to get?” reported the Ithaca Journal

The resignation prompted Students United Ithaca to make a list of demands for the school, one of which was, “STOP the racist and openly stated policy of “color blind” casting in the ICSD,” before descending into a diatribe about institutional racism and white supremacy, “STOP ignoring and denying that you have created a white centered program run by white adults for the benefit of white children. White children should also be educated about interrupting these practices of White supremacy.”

Their demands:

And other students wrote letters discussing the need for “conscious casting” and asserted that casting a white actress in the role of Esmerelda was cultural appropriation, whitewashing, and reinforcing the white savior stereotype.

It has come to our attention that Ithaca High School will be mounting the musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is a musical which centers around a critical message. It is a message of inclusion, particularly for those who have historically been oppressed. We could not be more in favor of this musical, particularly in such a divisive time in our nation.

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. 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.

Esmerelda is accurately depicted in the Disney musical, and is written for, a young woman of color. Esmerelda is a Roma, part of an oppressed class of people. It is her oppression, and that of her people, which allows her to better understand the perspective of the Hunchback and to ultimately advocate for him. She sings a song in which she calls to the heavens, asking God to save her people. “God Save My People, hungry at birth, show them the Mercy, they don’t find on Earth.” She cries out for justice. In the movie, she raises her fist in the air and yells “Justice!” and explains that the Hunchback is being oppressed, just like her people.

The young woman who was cast in this role has hazel eyes, blonde hair, and is the epitome of whiteness. This is an unfair position to put her in. At best, this is cultural appropriation. At worst, it is whitewashing, a racist casting practice which has its roots in minstrelsy. It also reinforces the damaging narrative that only white power structures can save oppressed people, rather than people of color having the fortitude to do so themselves. It is in line with countless movies which portray white people coming into brown and black communities and saving them. We know from our history that it is people of color who have been at the forefront of social justice movements. This white centered narrative is inaccurate, damaging, and should never be reinforced on the stage of our beloved high school.

The arts are the place where we create our narratives about society. This casting can not stand. Not now, not ever. We call upon the adults in the ICSD, the adults who hold the power, to step in and right this situation.

The school capitulated and issued a statement canceling the musical.

The active community engagement and conversation about the selection of the Hunchback of Notre Dame for the Ithaca High School musical has led to many conversations in our school district. This dialogue has affirmed our observations and wishes to have a more inclusive and culturally responsive learning community. In short, our efforts to eliminate institutional biases are ongoing.

We wish to thank the students, parents, caregivers, and educators for the reflections, support, and constructive feedback shared regarding Ithaca High School’s performing arts program. This is not about any particular faculty member or ICSD employee. We are greatly appreciative of the hard work and dedication that ICSD teachers and employees have given, and continue to give, to our students. We look forward to working together, as a beloved community, as we forge a path forward.

As you may already be aware, The Hunchback of Notre Dame will not be performed this spring. 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. 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. More information will follow shortly.

We thank everyone for their contributions as we delve further into complex conversations. In addition, we ask that you please stay engaged as we continually work to create community-wide support for our students and school community.

The thoughts and feelings of the actress who was cast as Esmerelda have received no mention in any local reporting to date, which is par for the course as collective victimhood hardly considers the actual victims of social justice and discrimination.