By Jamie Swinnerton
Back in September, Ithaca High School announced that the performing arts program would be putting on the musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” based on the original book by Victor Hugo with music from the Disney movie. But after the announcement of the chosen cast, the show was thrown into the spotlight for what has become the controversial casting choice for the female lead, Esmerelda. The choice to cast a white female student as Esmerelda led a number of other Ithaca High School students to write two letters to the editor to Tompkins Weekly, published on Jan. 8, about what they say is “whitewashing” of the show.
Prachi Ruina is a junior at Ithaca High School and the writer of the letter titled “God Help the Outcasts.” She has been an active member of the performing arts program since she was in middle school. In her letter, she details the issues and concerns she has had with the program for several years, well before this particular casting concern. According to her letter, Ruina’s first role in an Ithaca City School District Production was in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when she was in seventh grade.
“Me and all the other young girls of color were cast as servants to a fairy queen,” Ruina said in her letter. “She was white.”
After parents and local theater members shared their concerns about the casting of the show the district brought in a well-known local theater professional to direct a different show, “13”. Godfrey Simmons is the art director for Ithaca-based theater ensemble Civic Ensemble that produces theater that “explores and explodes the social, political, and cultural issues of our time,” according to the website. Simmons made a point to go out and encourage students who had not previously been a part of the program before to audition. The show was double cast, allowing more students to take part. Ruina was cast in one of the lead roles, her counterpart was white. In her letter, Ruina said they had a “great time” working together on the part.
“We decided to write the letters because for years I had this huge experience of being, sort of, pushed in the back because of my skin color, and I had seen multiple kids treated the same way,” Ruina said. “When they decided to do the Hunchback of Notre Dame this year in the high school I thought that this would be my chance to be up there more, and the opposite thing happened.”
What the students want to make clear is that their issue with the casting choice is not a personal one and they don’t believe the student chosen is not talented.
“She has worked hard to hone her craft and the IHS stage, or any stage, would be lucky to have her,” they wrote in one of the letters, titled Conscious Casting. “Our concern is not with her, but with the fact that in terms of demographics, she is the wrong choice for this role.”
This is not the only example that students, and their parents, have concerning casting in ICSD productions. About two years ago Boynton Middle School put on a production of Disney’s “The Lion King.” Many, if not all, of the characters that could be characterized as “evil”, were cast with children of color, while the leads were cast with white children.
Eamon Nunn-Makepeace, currently a freshman at IHS, is a black student who was cast as one of the hyenas in the show. His mother, Nia Nunn-Makepeace, who sits on the board of directors of Southside Community Center, and a group of other parents brought their concerns to the musical’s director and Boynton Middle School music teacher Robert Winans, who is also the director for “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“My mother went with a group of people for this when I was in seventh grade, so for a production of Lion King at Boynton, to talk about the issues of that musical and they did not – Robert Winans, he did not hear or listen,” Eamon said.
Annabella Mead-VanCort is the writer of the other letter, “Conscious casting,” that was undersigned by 25 other students, including Nunn-Makepeace. Through her mother, Eliza VanCort, the director of The Actor’s Workshop in Ithaca, she has a long and familiar history with theater.
“Our main thing is that we don’t think we should have to do this,” Mead-VanCort said. “This was not something that had to be done. We’re only doing this in response to the fact that adults were not listened to when this happened. My mom, she went and she talked to people.”
After the show was announced in September, VanCort sent an email to ICSD Superintendent Luvelle Brown, Winans, and IHS music teacher Kristin Zaryski, telling them how excited she was that they had chosen “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as the next musical.
“It’s so incredibly heartening that you chose a play which calls for a Brown girl as the female lead,” VanCort said in the email. “Not only are there few roles specially written for young women of color, but finding roles which pointedly and thoughtfully address the feeling of being an outcast, as Esmeralda does in her solo “God Help The Outcasts”, is rare indeed.”
But the students say these messages from parents have fallen on deaf ears. Since the letters were printed they have come up with a list of things they would like to see changed in the performing arts program.
“The first thing we think that needs to happen is that we need a different director,” Mead-VanCort said. “That is the number one thing that needs to happen that will then allow these next steps to be followed. So, we would like someone, not Mr. Winans, to be the director. Someone who has a goal for inclusivity and a goal to make the musical theater and general performance arts programs at IHS as inclusive and as diverse as possible.”
The efforts made by Simmons during the musical “13” have also inspired them, and with a change of leadership, they are also asking for a change in the audition process.
“We would want them to go out and actually recruit more kids of color in the community and also just in the high school because there’s a lot of talent that goes unrecognized,” Ruina said. “And another thing is that we would want them to make the environment more welcoming so there aren’t sort of these cliques of people that get leads year after year.”
The students say that ICSD uses colorblind casting, the practice of disregarding the race or ethnicity of a character when casting, which they say is unacceptable and ends up taking roles away from students of color.
“The district uses non-traditional casting. What this means to us is that we will consider any student for any role,” said Director of Performing and Fine Arts David Brown in an email.
The students are also asking for rehearsals for the musical to be stopped and a new show to be re-cast with multiple leads. Also included in their revised demands is a call for the administration to stop “ignoring and denying that you have created a white centered program run by white adults for the benefit of white children.” Here is their full list of demands.
There are other barriers, the students argue, that prevent some students from ever auditioning. One is transportation. Students whose parents work during the rehearsal times might not even try out. In the past, a carpooling system has sometimes been worked out to mitigate this problem, but the students say this doesn’t always happen.
Prior training is another possible barrier. Students who have the time and money for voice, dance, or acting lessons are more likely to try out in the first place. But these are benefits that not all students find available to them. Even the act of auditioning becomes a barrier to some. During the production of “13” VanCort volunteered her time and expertise to hold an audition workshop to help prepare all of the students auditioning.
“There are so many talented kids out there who have not had the benefit of repetition, in terms of repeatedly auditioning and learning the skillset you need for auditioning,” VanCort said. “So, if you don’t set systems up in place that help those kids to feel confident when they walk into the audition room, you’re basically shutting the door to them before the whole production starts. That’s when I get a little frustrated with terms like ‘opportunity.’ Because no one is going to take advantage of an opportunity if they don’t feel prepared for that opportunity.”
According to Winans, the audition process does include a meeting with all of the auditioning students to help prepare them for the process.
“Whereas many schools choose to have students come with their own music, which can be intimidating, we teach students music from the show at this meeting to use for auditions,” Winans said in an email. “After a general audition, some students are called back and given a chance to read and sing for specific roles. This gives us a chance to call back students who show potential, but may not have the same level of experience as others, and work with them a little to see if they could handle a role. Casting decisions are taken quite seriously and discussed for many hours, or even days, by a committee. Singing, dancing, and acting ability, as well as the chemistry they demonstrate with other students, is all that is discussed, so yes, we believe our process gives ALL students a fair chance.”
But even some ICSD faculty agree with the students. Floyd “Todd” Peterson has been working in the Ithaca school district for over 20 years, created the Boynton Theater Project, and for several years was the director for the school shows. But he has a history in the theater that goes much deeper and further than Ithaca. He is currently a teaching assistant at Belle Sherman Middle School. Nia Nunn-Makepeace was one of his students and remembers his active recruitment of students of color when putting on a production of “The Wiz,” a reimagining of “The Wizard of Oz” with an all-black cast.
Casting issues around race at ICSD, Peterson said, are not new. When he was casting for “The Wiz,” Peterson said he was asked by a music director “Does Dorothy really have to be black?” Peterson gathered multiple other stories of what he saw as biased casting.
“This has been going on for more years than you have been alive,” Peterson said to this reporter. “These kids, these people, have not been able to express themselves because of the system. They have been in a situation where why audition? They only like white people.”
Peterson eventually left the theater program in part due to frustrations with the casting directions he was given and choices that were being made.
“I think we can identify problematic elements around all of these shows,” said Nia Nunn-Makepeace about the casting issues around the shows that her son had been a part of.
After confronting Winans about “The Lion King” Nunn-Makepeace said he defended the choice.
“There’s just this education lacking by a lot of people,” Nunn-Makepeace said. “And yes, maybe there’s a reality of it not necessarily being their fault because our curriculum teaches such racism, it protects whiteness. Because there is this protection there’s this defending of it.”
On Thursday, Jan. 18, several of the concerned students spoke with members of the administration, including Brown, after the school reached out to the students.
“The district is creating a Collaborative Team made up of students, community, teachers, board members to look at our under represented students and create a system where students feel invited and want to be part of this program,” Brown said in an email. “We will also be looking at the obstacles that children are feeling is preventing them from participating. This will be chaired by The Director of Arts and the Director of Athletics. We believe when students engage in co-curricular activities they thrive in school. We will be looking at better ways to provide our programs for all students.”
Brown said the administration is also looking into more options for student performances. Neither Brown nor Winans commented when asked for a response to allegations of whitewashing, both with this show and past shows.