Letters to the Editor (Online exclusive): Another perspective from a theatre parent of a so called ‘token black kid’

I am writing in response to the recent uprise of students and community members speaking out against the casting of the Hunchback of Notre Dame at Ithaca High School. Let me begin, by saying I am a white single parent of two very talented black daughters and I have seen my fair share of bias and racism in our community and our district. I strongly support equality and fair treatment and would like nothing more than to think racism is a thing of the past. This sadly is just not true. I also believe seeing positive change happen in the school district and community could be a great thing and is well past due. While I do think its good overall that a conversation has begun, these claims, in my opinion, seem not to be born on facts or recent history but more so on the misinterpretation of one lead role and its casting. An issue that is being taken out of context and has been very narrowly pointed at the IHS performing arts program and particularly at Robert Winans who I personally know to be a great director, an incredibly caring and supportive teacher and who is far, far from a racist.

 

I cannot put into words how unbelievably upsetting it is to me that Winans has been targeted to be racist and put through this. My 20-year-old daughter Jewell Payne, had the privilege of working with Winans for her entire middle and high school career. Her experience with the performing arts at both Boynton and IHS was phenomenal. My talented black child had the privilege and opportunity at ICSD to play a black Annie, a black Belle in Beauty & the Beast, Hedy LaRue in How to Succeed in Business, Paulette in Legally Blonde and Brenda Strong in Catch Me If You Can. Almost every single one of these roles are traditionally played by white actresses yet Winans and the other directors did not see her color or some stereotype when they cast her but saw her talent and potential. They cast her in roles that gave her so many opportunities to shine, to feel celebrated, to grow her talent, voice, acting skills, and even learn different accents in order to play certain characters. Yes, we did have conversations at home during many casting processes wondering if she would even be able to get cast in certain roles due to her skin color because we’ve seen and she has felt what color casting truly feels like. Colorblind casting is not something she always felt or experienced in other organizations or casting decisions throughout her very active youth theatre experience. There have in fact been a number of instances within the broader community in other audition/casting calls where she very much felt color cast – cast or not cast in specific roles, only as ensemble or not at all due to her skin color. But, it was her time at ICSD when she felt the MOST supported and when she has MOST felt true colorblind casting. It was, in fact, Winans support and belief in her that had such an impact and raised her up during some very trying years in high school.

 

Not only did she have all of these opportunities while at ICSD but Winans has also been one of the most supportive teachers and directors to her and not just when she was on stage or when he was her immediate teacher or director. Jewell’s high school career was especially difficult as she has dealt with some very heavy mental health-related issues. While other teachers read journal entries which clearly stated that she was either suicidal or very near it and screamed “please help me” – words that broke my heart in two when I read them months later – yet, no action was taken by them; not even an email to me, the parent, was considered! Robert Winans reached out to her when he noticed that she was struggling and just not herself. He was one of the few, if not only teachers at ICSD who stopped and had a human conversation with her, told her he believed in her, showed her with his actions that she was enough and made her believe in herself when she may have otherwise given up. Winans supported her and cared about her during one of the darkest and most difficult time of her life – in fact, he still supports her to this day. For this, I am so incredibly grateful because he very possibly played a role in saving my child’s life. This is the type of man I know Robert Winans to be: a caring educator and teacher, one who strives for excellence, who doesn’t see color when he casts, but rather looks at the talent of the kids who audition and puts on the best performance possible with those kids.

 

I know that Jewell is not the only child, nor the only child of color that Winans has had an impact on. There have been several young black and minority kids who I’ve seen grow and have leading roles and positive experience with ICSD productions. My youngest is now 12 and a 7thgrade student at Boynton. She has been in two shows with Winans and has not gotten leads but in fact, has had smaller ensemble roles yet I’m not in an uproar about it claiming this is a racist issue or that they are holding her back. While she is equally as talented as her sister, she is much more shy and auditions differently and I believe in and stand by the decisions made by Winans and his team.

 

I was unfortunately not aware of the board meeting last week otherwise myself and Jewell would have been in attendance to speak on this issue. However, I learned afterward and saw in the video, that my daughter’s name and experience was mentioned, yet in an attempt to spin it in negative way as if she were only a pawn. As if her talent was not worthy or her getting the many significant roles she held while at ICSD was a fluke. The suggestion that her and her friend and fellow cast member Christian Henry – and other past black student actors were only “token black kids” is offensive and hurtful. I recall on more than one occasion after some of these shows having parents, people I didn’t even know but who knew or learned Jewell was my daughter, coming up to me saying things like how she is an inspiration to their child of color because she played that role and that gives them hope. What an incredible feeling that gave me as a proud parent, not only because of her God-given talent but because she was inspiring younger generations in these roles. To use recent casting history of talented black students in roles many of which are normally cast with white actors against them, calling them the ‘token black kids’ is, therefore, invalidating their experiences. How ironic to essentially reverse the racism, in a meeting and protest claiming that ‘casting was racist’ in one particular show; for one role that is in fact NOT written as a role specifically for a POC! We seem to live in a society these days where you sometimes have to walk on eggshells, and where some days it seems everything can be called a race, gay, feminist, or some other bias issue. I myself, so much more often than I’d like have this voice in my head that constantly wonders if little daily occurrences or certain situations are due to the color of my kid’s skin and I can’t wait for the day these thoughts don’t persist. But I too have to sometimes step back and remind myself that not everything is about race.

 

As one of the other things mentioned during this meeting, I feel I should note my children are not privileged financially in any way – I’m a single mom, I live paycheck to paycheck, fall under the category of “you make too much to get assistance but can’t afford to live comfortably without constantly feeling like you’re struggling.” I could never afford dance or voice lessons while we watched as many of Jewell’s peers in theatre had all kinds of these advantages. The short time we were able to get her any additional voice lessons it was due to the generosity of someone we knew. I sacrificed so much, fought so many struggles, and applied for every scholarship possible to give her the most opportunities I could to feed her talent. I have no doubt, her growth was largely due to her participation and experience at ICSD and in these school shows.

 

Let me repeat that I am more than in support of equality and fair treatment. As a parent of black children God knows I have seen multiple instances of racism and inequality and even “whitewashing” within our school system. YES, I do agree that there is not an equal representation of minorities in ALL extracurricular activities, performing arts included and this is a dialogue and conversation that is important and must be continued in our community to make positive change and equality a thing of the future. I do not mean to discount the feelings of the children who are so bravely speaking out their story. However, I find the basis for these claims misguided, taken out of context and supported by incomplete facts. Additionally, targeting Winans in particular, questioning his morals and character based on such misleading claims is so upsetting to me. He has worked incredibly hard, is completely dedicated and has built an incredible program in the performing arts at ICSD with a proven track record of holding amazing productions for high school and middle school levels. He takes great pride in the excellence of these shows and cares for every one of these kids – many of whom, POC included, are now in BFA programs studying musical theatre, and are even in touring Broadway shows. Winans has been incredibly hurt by this situation and I know he is not taking these claims lightly. However, these issues are not the fault of one person or one program. This is a community and cultural issue that yes, does need to be addressed somehow, but NOT at the expense of one man’s career and reputation.

 

I call for everyone of every color in our community, to look inside ourselves and find our own biases and not to lose sight of the larger picture here. Many of the comments and examples made at the board meeting were, in fact, pointing out that this is a larger community and schoolwide issue not only in performing arts, but in classrooms, and sports, and most every other extracurricular activity there is, and one that has spanned for over 15 years! Are there things that could or should be changed, of course. I think the idea suggested to recruit more minorities to participate is a great idea. The reality is that it’s also a bandwidth issue which requires more time and resources, and I’ve seen it tried before without much success. I also believe that these things need to start in elementary school and there need to be more opportunities and equal access for all, not only based on race but on financial and other disadvantages and not only in the school district but in the community overall. The musical has been canceled. I personally know how heartbreaking this is for these kids who live to perform in these shows, especially the seniors who have now had their final school show pulled out from underneath them. This has already hurt so many people involved. Continued demands and calling for one man to be fired is a bullying tactic which is using him as a scapegoat for a much larger issue and only hurting more people in the long run. How about we start a conversation and see how REAL, PROGRESSIVE, POSITIVE change can happen. Only let’s INCLUDE the current performing arts team and let this be a learning experience for everyone instead of continuing to point fingers or find fault in one person or program and claiming this idea of white supremacy within it, in the process tearing apart an exceptional program. That is only doing injustice to the cause that we all should want to fight for.

 

Heather Simkin