Letters: Conscience Casting

To whom it may concern,
We, the undersigned, are a diverse group of students from Ithaca High School. We write this letter together in the hopes that our unified voices can help create much needed change in the performance arts for all students at IHS.

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. We respectfully ask them to either:

1. Choose a different show and hold new auditions.

2. Do the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but recruit the many talented brown and black female students at IHS who have received the message that IHS musicals are a playground of the white privileged students of our school. We ask that these students are actively recruited and encouraged to audition. There are students who have never stepped foot in the choir room but can blow the roof off their church choir. They should be playing this role. It is their story to tell.

We thank you for your time. In the words of MLK Jr., “Later almost always means never.” We hope you will act now. As you teach us in school, there is no harm in making a mistake unless you don’t own up to it and learn from it. We learned this lesson from you. It’s an important one.

Very Sincerely Yours,
Annabella Mead-VanCort, Class of 2018
Niles Gossa, Class of 2018
Naseem Williams, Class of 2018
Henrique De Lemos, Class of 2018
Seogi Yi, Class of 2018
Lucian Mead-VanCort, Class of 2021
Eamon Nunn Makepeace, Class of 2021
Tenzon Doufur, Class of 2018
Imaan Greval, Class of 2018
Leonard Jung, Class of 2018
Michael Herrick, Class of 2018
Marilyn Pereboom, Class of 2018
Charles Thomson, Class of 2018
Max Chang, Class of 2018
Timothy Hector, Class of 2019
Charlotte Littell, Class of 2018
Frances Cannon, Class of 2019
Kyle Mangan, Class of 2018
Roey Raimon, Class of 2018
Grady Marston Simpkins, Class of 2018
Miya Scully, Class of 2018
Emma Creighton, Class of 2018
Liana Flecker, Class of 2018
Madeliene Gilson, Class of 2018
Aiden Cowle, Class of 2018
Prachi Ruina, Class of 2019