The Ithaca City School District announced this week that the production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at Ithaca High School is cancelled. The reason is not funding or lack of interest or lack of talent. It is due to the fact that the student who won the right to perform the role of Esmeralda happens to be white. Her selection based on talent was denounced as racially insensitive and even cultural appropriation. A Cornell professor applauded the students to force the closure of the musical.
Students protested and sent a letter with a list of demands. The letter says in part:
The young woman who was cast in this role has hazel eyes, blonde hair, and is the epitome of whiteness. This is an unfair position to put her in. At best, this is cultural appropriation. At worst, it is whitewashing, a racist casting practice which has its roots in minstrelsy. It also reinforces the damaging narrative that only white power structures can save oppressed people, rather than people of color having the fortitude to do so themselves. It is in line with countless movies which portray white people coming into brown and black communities and saving them. We know from our history that it is people of color who have been at the forefront of social justice movements. This white centered narrative is inaccurate, damaging, and should never be reinforced on the stage of our beloved high school.
The controversy is reminiscent of the producers of Hamilton excluding white actors from applying for any roles in the production.
Obviously, students of color often play roles of characters who were white in original novels or plays. This was an opportunity for the school district to show principle and courage and support the production. The district could have simply said that this student succeeded on the basis for her talent and not the color of her skin.
Instead, the high school and District yielded to the protesters and canceled the production, issuing a statement that the cancellation was needed to be “more inclusive and culturally responsive” in their “efforts to eliminate institutional biases.” Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown then thanked “everyone for their contributions as we delve further into complex conversations.” The conversation was actually not particularly complex. Nor was the response of the District. It certainly was not complex for the student who has been told that an entire production was cancelled because she had the audacity to prevail on talent in a color-blind competition.