The story that needed to be told

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By Jamie Swinnerton
Tompkins Weekly

 



When a group of students confronted the Ithaca High School performing arts department about what they argue was racist casting, the story was picked up by national news outlets only after it had been spread through ultra-conservative media. As a result, the students found themselves facing threats of violence and even death, often including racist and sexist language, that were intended to shut them up. It had the opposite effect.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it started in September of last year. The theater and performing arts department of IHS announced that it would be putting on the show “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” largely influenced by the Disney movie version of the story. When the cast list went up it was the casting choice for Esmerelda, the female lead, that would become the focal point of the coming controversy. A white female student had been chosen for the role of an oppressed Romani woman. In response, several IHS students (who would form the group now known as Students United Ithaca, SUI) wrote letters that were published in Tompkins Weekly on Jan. 8 explaining why they believe the casting choice was racist and demanded changes to the theater program at-large.

The student letter writers and their parents had reached the point where they felt they could no longer stay quiet. This was not the first time they said they had brought their concerns regarding racially insensitive casting to the musical director, Robert Winans, who also directed shows at Boynton Middle School. Eventually, after the letters went viral and several Board of Education meetings were full of community members decrying the casting choice and demanding change “Hunchback” was canceled, to be replaced by another show.

From the perspective of many of the students and their parents, the new show was nearly perfect. It was the story that needed to be told. Set in the 1960s, “Hairspray” deals with a number of complex social issues, including racism and segregation, bullying, body image, classism, interracial relationships, and the budding sexuality of teenagers. So, while national news organizations wrote about the hate that the SUI activists were receiving, the students themselves were diving head-first into the complex and nuanced messages of their new story. A well-known progressive local theater professional, Joey Steinhagen, was chosen to direct the show. President of the Board of Directors of Southside Community Center and an assistant professor of education at Ithaca College, Nia Nunn, engaged the cast of over 40 students in discussions around the difficult themes in “Hairspray,” opening up the uncomfortable conversations necessary to fully understand what the musical is all about. The outcomes of these discussions were put into the show’s playbill a month later when it opened on April 13.

Several of the original SUI leaders and their parents congregated last week just a few days after the show closed, as they had done countless times before, in the kitchen of local theater professional and owner of VanCort Consulting, Eliza VanCort, to debrief. VanCort’s daughter, Annabella Mead-VanCort, is one of the original SUI leaders and letter-writers. Together this diverse theater family reflected on the events of the past several months and discussed the necessary steps for the future. One of the overall themes of the ensuing discussion was the personal work each member took on in their daily life. The hard, uncomfortable work of talking about race, biases, and privilege didn’t make it into the national headlines. Changing minds didn’t happen overnight, and in the long-run, the fight is not over. For Prachi Ruina, an SUI leader and the writer of the original letter in Tompkins Weekly “God Help the Outcasts” that argued for the role of Esmerelda to be filled by a female of color, these personal interactions were more important.

“Everyone focuses on the national thing,” Ruina said. “There were so many different parts that were just happening in the kitchen or anywhere that was right here.”
Several of those difficult conversations were between Ruina and fellow student Emma Ellis, who had originally been cast as the role of Esmerelda, and was later cast as Tracy Turnblad, the lead in “Hairspray.”

“I personally wish that I had seen the actual issue of the matter a lot sooner because it did take me a really long time to come around and finally get why it was such a problem, and I’m glad I did,” Ellis said. “I think that’s in part due to racial education. I think that if I had been so much more educated on race then it would have been a lot easier for me to see why it’s a problem.”

For Ellis, it took until one of the Board of Education meetings held after the letters were printed for that realization to sink in. After hearing the stories shared by people of color at the meeting, Ellis said she realized not only what the problem was, but that it went much deeper than just this one musical.

A common sentiment from the cast was that the experience of putting on a completely new musical in just one month, which included forcing some very uncomfortable conversations to take place, pulled them much closer together, instead of pushing them apart. More than one person in the kitchen refers to the collected group as a family.

“A lot of interviews that we did when it was really crazy, it was like every day after school, the question we would get a lot – because we’re all in high school – was ‘So, how’s the girl who was going to play Esmerelda? Did you guys have a problem?’” said Maddi Carroll, one of the original student leaders of SUI. “I think so many people wanted to hear the fight. And I said ‘No, we’re all pretty good friends. Her dad’s great, she’s great, we’re pretty good.’ And I think it’s because people wanted that conflict, the battles.”

Carroll, a young black female, made it into the cast of “Hunchback,” but decided to leave the show. After the original show was canceled she was cast in “Hairspray” as Motormouth Maybelle, the host of the once-a-month Negro Day on the Corny Collins show, a local teenage dance program on TV where much of the show’s action takes place. The drama and conflict Carroll said people were searching for just wasn’t there. The SUI and the Hunchback cast held their own meeting after the original show was canceled and realized how divided they looked sitting across from each other. So, they integrated.

 



“I remember we started out sitting all SUI on one side, and then everyone else,” Ruina said of the meeting where another student expressed their discomfort with the divide. “So, we all sat together. That conversation lasted like two or three hours.”

Students were not the only ones talking through the issues highlighted by the cancellation of the original show. Parents of the students involved were also exploring these issues, on a personal level and a community one. Initially, Mike Ellis was defensive about the insinuation that his daughter should be replaced as the lead. But eventually he too changed his mind about the situation, and through long conversations with fellow parents, and students, is now one of the strongest advocates, especially to fellow white community members, for changes to be made and hard conversations to be had. While the movement was a student-led one, the parents have continued to find ways to keep the ground that their kids have gained. One of those actions may be making suggestions to the school for future musical directors.

It’s unclear at this time what role Winans will be playing in the theater and performing arts department going forward. What the SUI students want people to know is that they had no intention of “destroying” Winans and would prefer that he have the opportunity to listen to their concerns and learn from them.

“Winans is no different than most of the teachers in the school district, in terms of his response,” said Nunn. “The reactions that kids have in his space is not necessarily unique. Some of those stories that kids started to share, that’s commonplace. And that’s why he had the support that he had from teachers, is because they saw themselves in him.”

For Nunn, this sentiment isn’t just theoretical. Her son, Eamon Nunn-Makepeace is a student at IHS, one of the original SUI leaders, and was cast in “Hairspray” as the character of Seaweed J. Stubbs. The Nunn-Makepeace household is not afraid to speak up when they perceive injustice.

“Don’t let what you’ve seen around you from the people that are supposed to be teaching you, keep you from speaking up about things that you see as wrong about what they’re teaching you,” Eamon said while discussing what he wants the community to learn from the experience.

Strategies for the future are still being discussed. There won’t be one thing, one nail in the coffin, for these issues. Highlighting educators putting in the work was one strategy, utilizing voting power where possible was another. But the message from the group is clear: the conversation that the letters started can’t end here.

“From my perspective, the outcome was outstanding and it all happened fairly quickly,” said Ithaca City School District Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown. “I don’t know if we had done something differently if we would have been able to have a show at the same time or have as an inclusive of a process as we had, so I’m hesitant to say we would have done something differently.”

Making sure a show was put on was one of the priorities, Brown said, because it was one of the priorities of the students, and listening to the students was what motivated the steps taken.

“I say often, and in this case it couldn’t be more true, sometimes adults just need to listen and not talk,” Brown said.

This was a case that Brown said the adults had to listen, be humble, and learn from young people. As much as he said he learned from the experience, Brown said it was a moment that affirmed for him that his students were engaged, educated, and empowered.

“For me it was a mission moment that affirmed the work that we’ve been doing here, throughout my tenure, to cultivate that,” Brown said. “I learned through this process, is that we must continue to provide opportunities for young people to partner with adults to solve very, very complex issues. I think what’s happened here is something that I think is going to change our community.”

He sees in the future the community coming together to acknowledge blind spots and weaknesses and create new systems and structures that hadn’t been in place before. Brown, a black man, said he is not surprised that the students found this particular blind spot.

“I’ve lived in this skin all my life,” Brown said. “So, the oppressions, the racism, the classism that folks speak to I’ve lived, and I see every day too. I’ve said often that I am the leader of an institutionally oppressive organization so I see these things every day.”

When it comes to the tradition of color-blind casting the SUI students demanded to be abolished, Brown said he doesn’t know enough about casting procedures and the theater to classify color-blind casting as racist. But, Brown said future changes inspired by the SUI movement would have to address the systems and structures in place that keep programs like the theater department from reflecting the diversity of the student body. To address this, Brown said a group is being put together of students, staff, parents, and board of education members to address the issues and concerns around co-curricular opportunities that this event has brought up. David Brown, director of the performing arts program at IHS, will be the point person for the group.

Few could have predicted the impact those letters would have when they were printed. No one can predict if the changes brought about by those letters will stick. But the students involved are ready to continue fighting when needed and dedicated to educating future IHS graduates about their experience. For Ruina, and the other SUI leaders, there’s no stopping now.

“Students have the voice now and we have to use it,” Ruina said.

As the SUI leaders already demonstrated while facing threats of violence, they aren’t going to just shut up. In fact, as Carroll puts it, they’ll do just the opposite.
“No matter what, don’t try and silence us because we’ll scream 10 times louder.”

 

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Nia Nunn is the Executive Director of Southside Community Center. Nunn is actually the President of the Board of Directors for the Southside Community Center. An earleir version also stated that Robert Winans directed shows at Dewitt Middle School. This has been corrected to Boynton Middle School.

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