By Heather Crespin
As someone who was a theater nerd in high school, studied Culture and Communication at Ithaca College with a concentration in social activist theater, and now works as a student advisor at Cornell, I was moved by the two letters to the editor that appeared in Tompkins Weekly on January 8, titled “Conscious Casting” and “God Save the Outcasts.” I must echo what the students said in their letters: The casting of a white woman as Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is whitewashing at its finest.
This is a bigger issue than just some high school drama. People of color are often passed over for roles explicitly written for them, while white actors are granted license to play almost any character. Yet on the rare occasion this dynamic is reversed, the result is public outcry. As a recent example, there was much public objection to a black woman, Noma Dumezweni, being cast as Hermione in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” Yet it is common, as is the case at Ithaca High School, for characters who are explicitly written as people of color to be played by white or white-passing actors, despite the plethora of talented actors of color available.
In our society, whiteness is considered to be the norm, and anything outside of that is “exotic.” Thus, it is shocking when a person of color “steals” a role that is assumed to be reserved for white actors, while we hear over and over about color blind casting “based on the talent of the actor” when a white person is cast in the role of a person of color. In this instance, Esmeralda in the stage adaptation of Disney’s Hunchback is explicitly written as a woman of color (as a member of the Roma people), which informs her world experience. To cast a white woman in this role undermines the significance of the intentional racialization of the character and insults the very real trauma that the Roma continue to face to this day.
The Ithaca High students clearly state steps that theater director Robert Winans can take to amend his current blunder: Either pick a different show and hold new auditions or appropriately cast the current production. For my two cents, I especially support the first option since it would provide the young woman currently cast as Esmeralda an opportunity to hold a leading part in a role that suits her. Then, she will not be punished for the lack of cultural awareness displayed by Winans. There are a plethora of shows in existence that are appropriate for high schoolers to perform that don’t involve brownface or whitewashing. It is not difficult to find musicals that have characters that can be played by actors of any race without it affecting the plot.
I wish to commend the Ithaca High School students, in particular the students of color, for speaking out against covert racism within their theatre program. Standing up against those in positions of power and calling out their transgressions is never an easy thing to do at any age, yet here we have high school students bravely speaking truth to power and dealing with issues that nobody, especially not minors, should have to face. I also want to note and appreciate the femme labor being done here – both letters were penned by female students. We must value the emotional and intellectual labor these young women do for us. The burden should not be on the oppressed to educate the privileged, and yet these young folks are doing the work.
I have no doubt that Winans was trying to do what he thought was best for the program; unfortunately, as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It’s not enough to be well intentioned when we live in a society based on racist structures and power imbalances. Ignorance isn’t a valid excuse when people of color have been voicing these complaints for ages. And while this isn’t an indictment of Winans on a personal level, it’s necessary to acknowledge we live in a racist society and we’ve all been raised to hold racist beliefs as a result.
We must critique the society at large, which is why it’s important to call out these smaller, more local instances of prejudice. At the end of the day, microaggressions are still microaggressions, and racism is still racism, regardless of whether it comes from someone meaning well or ill. As residents of Ithaca, we cannot continue to pretend we are some Utopian, enlightened, anti-racist community when events like this are taking place. It is a false, damaging narrative that does nothing to help people of color in Ithaca. I urge the Ithaca High School’s theater program to do better now, and know that the community is watching to see what action you take next.