Letters to the Editor: A Response to Casting and Engagement in ICSD Performing Arts

I am completely sympathetic with the overall cause of inclusion and diversity within the arts which IHS students recently wrote about and appreciate their speaking out – young people and community involvement is needed to bring about positive change in our schools. However, my experiences with ICSD administration & teachers through involvement in PTA has given me a different perspective on the district and performing arts at Boynton and IHS.

The students who wrote in said the casting of Esmeralda is racist. I disagree based on authorial intent – what the author of the musical or play intends. MTI licenses the show and states no specific ethnicity for any of the parts in “Hunchback of Notre Dame” though they do for characters in other shows when there is authorial intent. They allow for open casting in this musical, Esmeralda included. This is in consideration of the original novel and the myriad of film and stage production interpretations over the years in which performers of all races were featured. It also reflects the diverse background of the Roma people who originated in India and began migrating as early as the 6th century through Eastern and Central Europe, thereby developing a far reaching ethnic background by 1482 when the musical takes place. The Roma were viewed as outcasts and had no tie to a specific home. They were and are persecuted however their skin color varies widely.

The show is based directly on the Victor Hugo novel with songs from the Disney cartoon as stated by MTI. Hugo explored themes of class struggle and discrimination against outcasts – both the Roma and Quasimodo. In the book, Esmeralda is an orphan growing up with the Roma. At the end she meets her mother, a French woman named Paquette whose affair with a nobleman led to her downfall. Esmeralda (originally Agnes) is told she was kidnapped by the Roma. This background is not included in the cartoon or musical but is important. Esmeralda is Roma through her upbringing not her birth parents. Characters remark on Esmeralda’s great beauty and some make fun of her gypsy dress– but do not comment on skin color. Hugo describes her skin color as golden. When Disney adapted Esmeralda for their cartoon they chose to make her skin darker which was viewed as an attempt to bring diversity to the brand, but they cast white voice actors (Demi Moore & Heidi Mollenhauer) a seemingly contradictory decision.

ICSD recognizes a racial disparity in participation across the district and continually takes measures to encourage inclusion and diversity within extra-curricular activities and in school courses. There are many discussions being had and ideas considered to promote this aim – there has been progress though more needs to happen.

My daughter was involved in the performing arts at Boynton and IHS so I ended up volunteering as publicity coordinator and still do though we don’t live in Ithaca currently. The environment I saw created through chorus, band, orchestra and musicals was one of diversity and inclusion. There were a wide range of students involved representing every race, gender, and orientation with a variety of backgrounds just like the city of Ithaca. The young people developed friendships based on a love of music while respecting and celebrating each other’s differences as they achieved a common goal. This was not a “playground of the white privileged students” as the writers said – it was a gymnasium for every interested student to work hard, engage, and learn creatively within a diverse and inclusive group supported by faculty who cared deeply and extended themselves daily.

The community so many students thrive in is a direct result of the performing arts teachers encouraging and inspiring students. The team is open, supportive and inclusive with a mission to involve students of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, orientations, body types and abilities in their productions – and numbers steadily are growing. Students with disabilities are welcomed and given any support needed to ensure a positive experience. Directors do all they can to insure money is not a factor in participating by providing instruments and extra coaching where needed, as well as offering scholarships for NYSSMA, spirit t-shirts and field trips to both middle and high school students, as well as making tickets available for families and organizing transportation through car pools and community groups.
The musical castings from past productions show an attention to both diversity and gender fluid casting. There were many leads and ensemble members who were students of color in my memory going back to “Annie” at Boynton and “Catch Me If You Can” at IHS.
IHS productions are highly professional. It is the proving ground for many students who choose to study performing at university. These programs are the equivalent of the most in depth Chemistry or Math courses. Within the school day, Choir is a highlight for so many High School students – even acting is taught at IHS, as the district strives to give all students access to courses that will help them develop their talents to the highest level.
More diversity is needed in performing arts but the same is true across district programs. This is a focus for ICSD as it embraces Dr. Brown’s vision and choice to lead with love. Students need to be in closer dialogue with the ICSD board, administration and teachers to constructively accomplish higher rates of participation. On social media it is easy to react in anger rather than seek communication and cooperate towards a common goal while considering the facts of particular situations. In person communication will always bring us closer to goals of inclusion and avoid one sided dialogues. We all need to research and fact check before we make up our minds on issues.

Expanding performing arts opportunities from elementary through high school would help diversity goals – rather than attack a successful program which serves many students, why not extend the vision of performing arts and create more options just as there are within sports offerings. Last year BJM started a 5th grade musical – hopefully this is continued since interesting students at a younger age is key to continued engagement. An option for voice as well was instrumental lessons would help students develop their skills. There are many possibilities to be considered. From my observation the doors of ICSD are open and they are inviting students of all races to come participate and have a dialogue. I have the greatest respect for the 6000 thinkers who are working together to create an even better school district on a daily basis.


Kind regards,
Kathryn Morris