Ithaca High School in New York has canceled its production of “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” after student activists complained about their white peer receiving the lead role of Esmeralda.
Students United Ithaca released a set of demands calling for the cessation of rehearsals, the removal of the high school’s musical director and an end to the “racist” policy of color-blind casting.
“Because of institutionalized racism [color-blind casting] results in white children being cast in roles written as white parts and also white children being cast in roles that were specifically intended for people of color,” the students wrote in a Jan. 25 Facebook post. “Make no mistake, the world is not colorblind. Casting cannot be colorblind.”
In a Jan. 29 statement, the high school said it had canceled “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” and would announce a new spring production shortly.
“As you may already be aware, The Hunchback of Notre Dame will not be performed this spring,” the statement said. “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.”
In Victor Hugo’s novel, La Esmeralda is the daughter of a French woman. Her father is of unknown origin. Gypsies kidnap La Esmeralda as an infant and replace her with Quasimodo, who is deformed.
Early in the novel, she’s described as having black hair, black eyes and “swarthy” skin that is the “beautiful golden tone of the Andalusians and the Roman women,” according to the translation by Isabel F. Hapgood.
The 1996 Disney animated movie portrays Esmeralda as completely Roma with green eyes.
The musical, which debuted in the United States in 2014, is produced by Walt Disney Theatrical and includes songs from the movie.
Parents, students and members of the Ithaca community engaged in a letter-writing campaign after the casting decision was made.
One of the letters, signed by 26 Ithaca High School students and published in Tompkins Weekly, acknowledged that the student cast as Esmeralda is “a stellar actor, singer, and dancer” who has “worked hard to hone her craft.”
But “Esmerelda is accurately depicted in the Disney musical, and is written for, a young woman of color,” the students continued.
“The young woman who was cast in this role has hazel eyes, blonde hair, and is the epitome of whiteness,” they wrote. “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.”
Maddi Carroll, a member of Students United Ithaca, said she quit the musical due to the casting decision.
“It shows you that theater wasn’t made for you,” Ms. Carroll, 17, 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?”
Ms. Carroll said the group’s goal was “not just to shut down the production,” but to replace the director with a “socially conscious” one “so that everybody can participate” in future productions.
She said the school’s problems are systemic and changes need to be made to make Ithaca High School more inclusive.