Our history books are full of brave individuals who shaped our country by refusing to stand by idly in the face of hatred, injustice, and inequality.
So when a group of students at an upstate New York high school noticed there was injustice and inequality within their very own school, they decided to take a page out of their history textbooks and actually do something about it. However, they never imagined the effect their actions would have…
The School Play
Each year, Ithaca High School puts on a play or a musical that is performed by students from the upstate New York high school. For 2018, the school announced that they had chosen to put on a production of the musical ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
The musical would be based on both Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel as well as the 1996 animated Disney film. In the story, the female lead character Esmeralda is Roma, an ethnic group of migrants also known as Gypsies who originally descended from India to Europe…
The Lead Role
When many of the high school students heard that ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ had been chosen for this year’s play, they were thrilled since one of the lead roles featured a woman of color. For the first time in a long time, students of color felt they were being represented in the school play.
“We didn’t feel like our high school usually put on productions with women of color in starring roles,” said Maddi Carroll, a 17-year-old African-American senior at Ithaca High School. “We were talking about us being younger and thinking about Disney princesses we had to look up to. For us, we really had Jasmine and Esmeralda…”
According to Music Theatre International, the licensing company that owns the rights to the play ‘Hunchback’, Esmeralda is described as a “beautiful and free-spirited gypsy who possesses the strong sense of justice and morality” who is between 20 to 30 years old.
In the 1996 Disney animated film, which all the students at Ithaca High School grew up watching, Esmeralda is portrayed as a young woman with a dark complexion. The students just assumed the lead female role would be played by one of the school’s students of color…
After auditions were held last fall, however, the school announced that a white student had been cast as Esmeralda. Not only did they cast a white student for the lead female role, but only 5 to 10 students of color were cast in the entire production.
Getting The Part
“It shows you that theater wasn’t made for you,” said Maddi Carroll. “And it shows you that, if you can’t get the parts that are written for you, what parts are you going to get?” Maddi had been cast as part of the ensemble but dropped out after seeing the rest of the casting…
Students United Ithaca
When news of the casting spread around the school, Maddi Carroll and 4 of her classmates decided to form Students United Ithaca. They started writing letters to the school’s administration and started campaigning against the production of ‘Hunchback’.
The small group of students started getting support from the community, and this past January, Annabella Mead-VanCort wrote a letter to Tompkins Weekly, a local publication. The high school senior did not audition for the play, but she argued that the role was meant to be played by a woman of color…
The Roma People
“Esmeralda is a Roma, part of an oppressed class of people,” Annabella wrote in the letter to Tompkins Weekly. “It is her oppression, and that of her people, which allows her to better understand the perspective of the Hunchback and to ultimately advocate for him.”
Too Late For Change
“Our goal was not just to shut down the musical,” Maddi said. “We want to get a socially conscious director to replace the current director so that everybody can participate.” However, the faculty told the students there was no time to make any changes to the production scheduled for April 13-15…
Yet on January 23rd, the school board held a meeting to discuss the issues surrounding the production of ‘Hunchback’. The students who made up Students United Ithaca were joined by fellow students who wore all black to show their support for the cause.
“I call upon you to stop this musical now,” Annabelle said during the community meeting. “You tear a community apart if you don’t.” The next day, the school board announced that they were canceling the musical. In its place, a new production will be scheduled for a later date…
A New Project
According to the Ithaca City School District, the new production “will provide young people and our community the opportunity to engage together while fully expressing the talents of our students. A new project is currently being discussed by students, families, and educators. This project will also engage the talents and skills of students previously cast.”
The First Step
The students that formed Students United Ithaca were grateful that the school listened to their concerns, but they know it’s only the first step at making the Ithaca High School more inclusive to students of color, who make up 34 percent of the school…
A Systemic Issues
“This issue is bigger than one part in one musical in one place,” Maddi said. “It’s very very systemic and is very deeply rooted in how we learn and what we do every day. So, we next want to go to the school. We want to branch out from the arts to the school in general and we want to try and make a change.”
Celebrated For Speaking Up
At first, the students responsible for getting the play canceled felt nothing but support from the community. “Even though it involved a sacrifice on my daughter’s part, I think the questions that they’re asking are good, important questions that any school should want to ask itself,” said Mike Ellis, the dad of the student originally cast as Esmeralda…
But soon, the students became the target for hate and threats of violence. It all started when right-wing online publications reported the story. Their readers were outraged and started an online attack on the teenage high school students.
Threats Of Violence
Over the last few weeks, the students have been sent pictures of themselves on their facebook accounts with swastikas on their faces and been inundated with messages that threaten physical violence. “This is very, very surreal,” Maddi said. “It’s a lot to handle as a 17-year-old who is in high school right now, applying to college, trying to get ready for that stuff.”