I am a 16-year-old junior at Ithaca High School and I am Indian. I’m writing this letter to convey my experience as a young woman of color in the Ithaca City School District performing arts program. I write this letter in the sincere hope that it will help make a change in the performing arts program and that one day all children feel welcome to participate. It is a widely accepted belief by the students of color in middle school and Ithaca High School that they are not as valued as the white students in the performing arts. I cannot in one short letter prove that this is true. I can, however, share my experience I hope you will listen. Below is my history in the Ithaca City School District performing arts.
6th Grade: In 6th grade I was on stage crew. Despite the fact that the cast was all white, I was inspired by their performances and decided it would be fun to participate in 7th grade.
7th Grade: Play- I was cast in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”. Me and all the other young girls of color were cast as servants to a fairy queen. She was white. We were dressed identically and the director added things into the show such as having us sing and dance and then be admonished for our behavior by the queen. This was a moment that made me realize that I would not be treated like the white kids. My skin color would make others see and treat me differently.
Musical- Due to a public outcry by members of the theater community who saw “Midsummer” Godfrey Simmons, an African American who is an accomplished actor and director who now works at Cornell in the theater department agreed to direct the show. He chose the musical “13” which gave multiple opportunities for diverse casting choices. He double cast the show so that as many children as possible could participate and a carpool system was put in place to make sure that no child was blocked out because they could not travel to the school. The casting of both casts was rich and diverse because Godfrey went into the cafeteria and actively recruited kids who had never acted before. Many of them had grown up singing in their communities and were incredible singers. Had Godfrey not encouraged them, we would have never heard their voices. I was cast as one of the two leads, my counterpart in the other cast was white. We had a great time working together on the same part. It was my first time singing in front of an audience and one of the highlights of my middle school experience. It was particularly wonderful to hangout with such a diverse cast, these were kids I never would have talked to before. All of us, Black, White, Indian… we all benefited from it.
8th Grade: The musical chosen was Aladdin and all the characters are brown. I was cast as the narrator, which is a very small role. A white student asked why I was not cast as Jasmine who is the female lead. (I knew if I asked I would not have been given a straight answer). He was told that it was because “Prachi had her chance last year to be a lead in “13”. It’s worth noting that the young white male student who was cast as Aladdin, the lead male role, was also a lead role in 13. It was hard for me to understand why I couldn’t get a lead two years in a row when I had seen white children, year after year, get cast as various leads.
9th grade: I was disheartened after Aladdin and decided not to participate.
10th grade: I auditioned for “Anything Goes” and was cast in the chorus. It’s worth noting that a senior African American young man was a lead in this show. It is also worth noting that I have not seen one show where there is more than one person of color in a lead role. Most of the time all the leads are white.
11th grade, this year: When it was announced this September that the show would be the Hunchback of Notre Dame I was excited because although the characters are all white there is one exception. Esmeralda, the female lead, is a brown woman who looks very much like me. I really relate to Esmerelda as the Roma people are outcasts. She even sings a song asking for God to save “my people”, the outcasts. As an adopted Indian girl I often feel an outcast myself, never quite knowing where I fit in. Esmeralda’s oppression as a “gypsy” brown woman allows her to have empathy for the oppression of others. I relate to that as well. I wrote an audition monologue about my experience as a Brown girl. I felt it was very much in line with the character. By choosing this character the adults at IHS had a rare opportunity to make the students of color feel they have a place on the stage. Unfortunately just the opposite happened. In my case, I was not given a callback. The only girl of color called back was not cast as Esmeralda, or any leading role. I saw no effort made to encourage students of color to audition for Esmeralda despite that there are many excellent students of color who could have done the role justice. In the end, a very talented but miscast 11th grade blonde haired, hazel eyed girl, a white young woman, was cast as Esmeralda.
I want to stress that the young woman cast is very, very talented. I also want to stress that there are talented brown girls, not just me but many others, who could and should play this role. And I want to stress that this casting is representative of a larger problem. Casting this young white woman as an oppressed woman of color sends the message that it’s OK to whitewash casting. It sends a message that the adults did not make any effort to find people of color to audition. Ultimately it sends the message that we, people of color, do not belong in the performing arts and we shouldn’t even try. I hope that future children of color aren’t afraid of theater just because of their skin color. I hope that kids of color aren’t intimidated by the power of the white adults. But this will only happen if the adults in power make the choice to include all of us.
This was very hard for me to write. However, this is something that can’t get pushed aside. People need to talk about it so that things can change for the better. The character Esmeralda says “You speak of justice, yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help.” It’s time for the adults at IHS to support and encourage the students most in need of help from caring adults who are concerned about justice for everyone.
Prachi Ruina, class of 2019