My name is Jewell Payne. I am a 20 year old black IHS alum (class of 2015). It has come to my attention that Robert Winans, someone I hold in very high regard, has recently come under fire due to a casting decision made in this years IHS musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, specifically over the part of Esmerelda. I have read several letters now calling him a racist and a bigot over this choice and I believe that the accusations being thrown at this man are utterly and inexcusably false. I myself had Winans as a director from middle school all the way through high school (besides freshman year as someone else directed that year) and never once did I feel discriminated against. As a matter of fact, I felt celebrated! And I want to help clear up the terrible misconceptions going around about this man by sharing my experiences.
When reading these letters (Conscious Casting and God Help The Outcast on Tompkins weekly) I noticed one thing that seemed to be missing and that was solid proof. Neither of these letters went into any kind of detail about past actions they felt specifically made Winans a “racist and a bigot”. But instead only used the current musical casting choice as their solid evidence. In fact, multiple other productions in which Mr. Winans was not involved with were instead noted as part of the history of the girl in question who did not get the part. If they would have done their research they would have found that in 2015 – IHS put on a production of Catch Me if You Can. The young man who played Frank (the male lead) was a very talented young black man. I was cast as the female lead Brenda Strong. It should be noted that both of these roles are traditionally played by white men and women. But there’s more! 2014 – The IHS musical was Legally Blonde. Another very talented young black man played the part of Mr. Callahan (yet another male lead traditionally played by a white man) and I was cast as Paulette one of the female leads in the show. 2013 – The IHS musical was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I was cast as Hedy la Rue. Yet another role traditionally played by a white woman. I can even go as far back as middle school. 2011 – The Boynton production was Beauty and the Beast Jr. Myself and another very talented young white woman were double cast as Belle. The year before that (2010) we were also double cast as Annie in Annie Jr. Many of these roles were roles we as black performers know we will likely never get another chance to play again!
In addition to giving me the chance to play these leading roles, Mr. Winans also was there for me through one of the hardest times of my life. My high school career was no picnic and by senior year I had gotten to a point where I was dangerously depressed. However, no matter what I said it seemed that every single teacher or adviser I tried to talk to was never interested in how I was feeling or the state of my mental health. It was Winans who noticed I was not myself and proceeded to help me as much as he could. Letting me talk to him when I was at my lowest and giving me the hope and positivity that I needed to get me through. Quite literally Mr. Winans saved my life. He didn’t have to, but he chose to take that upon himself and if it weren’t for him I can’t say I would even be alive right now. For that I will forever be grateful.
Now I understand that at a recent board meeting some comments were made that essentially invalidated Christian Henry and my own experience in the IHS theatre program by simply saying we were the “token black kids.” Saying that because I was cast in roles that required me to belt and sing soulfully, or that double casting was looked at as a joke about going to see the black or white belle, and because Christian was cast as Frank (the male lead in Catch Me if You Can) who is a thief, that in itself was a racist act. When I heard this my heart broke. For the first time, this made me feel as though I somehow did not actually deserve these roles because of my talent, and it negates all of my hard work and the great experience that I had while in IHS performing arts programs. Let me be the first to point out, that I was NEVER told I needed to be or sing or act like a “stereotypical black woman.” Not only this but you’re suggesting that only black women can belt or sing soulfully? If you were to listen to the soundtracks for the shows I have mentioned above, or for nearly any musical theatre production, you would notice that there are plenty of songs in any of the shows that require one to belt, not just my parts, but many songs throughout all parts in the productions! Belting happened to be one of the strong points for not only me, but many of the young talented kids who were in the program with me and so therefore shows were chosen that played to our strengths. Regarding the comment about the double casting, was this also not one of the very things that was also noted in one of the previously aforementioned letters as one of the positive experiences that the girl in question had been double cast in the show that Godfrey Simmons was brought in to help with? The girl I was double cast with was also a very talented young actress – this was a decision that in no way had anything to do with our race but that the directors had a hard time deciding which one of us to cast and therefore decided to double cast. Never was there any bad feelings on either side and it in fact was a great experience for both of us, And yes, Frank is a thief but that still does not and should not take away from the fact that this is the leading male role in the show and in almost every adaption of the show Frank is played by a white man. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank in the movie! The fact of the matter is Winans and the others who help cast the shows felt Christian was the best fit for the part not because of his skin color but because they knew he could make the show the best it could possibly be.
I don’t want it to seem like I am oblivious to the very real threat of institutionalized racism. I am fully aware of and have been subject to institutionalized racism myself. However, at no time under Robert Winans direction did I feel this was the case. I do agree with the suggestion that changes to the process can be made in an attempt to recruit and be more inclusive of POC. That said, I believe that the issues that have been raised, while important, are that of a larger overall community and cultural issue, that is widespread over many areas in the city of Ithaca and our school district, not just the performing arts program, and while this is an important conversation that should be had, in this instance fingers are being wrongly pointed at one man and one singular casting decision. Don’t get me wrong Winans is not perfect. He does have his faults as most of us do. But I have never at any time felt any racial tension from him. I feel as though the remarks against him are a huge and dangerous leap to take. This man, and his directing team are not racist. It has been pointed out by several people that at no point in the show itself does it specify what ethnicity Esmerelda is. As a matter of fact, in the original text by Victor Hugo Esmerelda is described as being the illegitimate daughter of a French nobleman who was stolen by gypsies. Add that to the fact that if you go on and look up casting calls for different professional level productions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame online in many cases it specifically says “All ethnicities” in the description for her character! Winans (along with all others involved with casting the productions) simply strive to create the absolute best performance they possibly can from the students who show up to audition. Casting who they feel is going to do the part the most justice. That’s how show biz works! If you don’t show up, you don’t get cast. And if you’re not as good as another actor for a role, you don’t get the part. I know in my heart that they meant no ill will or negativity when creating the cast list and I hope that this letter is able to help show that Mr. Winans does not deserve to be called such names. He does not deserve to have his reputation tarnished over this and does not deserve the personal anguish he’s being made to feel. I stand behind Mr. Winans and the IHS performing arts program. Always.