Casting Controversy Leads to Online Threats Against High School Students

Casting Controversy Leads to Online Threats Against High School Students
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
at Paper Mill Playhouse

The Ithaca High School production of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME has been cancelled following an outcry over the lack of diversity in casting. However, the national attention placed on the school has lead to online threats.

The Ithaca Journal reported that students complained when a white actress was cast in the role of Esmerelda, a part intended to be portrayed as a Romani person living in 15th century Paris. In recent productions, including its 2014 premiere at La Jolla Playhouse and the New Jersey's 2015 production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, a woman of color -- Ciara Renée -- was cast in the leading role. Additionally, the 1996 Disney film animates Esmerelda with a dark complexion, and this is the film that the students of Ithaca High School grew up watching.

An African-American Ithaca High School student told the Ithaca Journal, "It shows you that, if you can't get the parts that are written for you, what parts are you going to get?"

In early January, Ithaca High School senior Annabella Mead-VanCort penned an open letter in Tompkins Weekly, titled "Conscience Casting", in response to the controversy. In it, she states, "Esmerelda is accurately depicted in the Disney musical, and is written for, a young woman of color. Esmerelda is a Roma, part of an oppressed class of people. 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."

The report notes a number of students quit the production in protest. Three Ithaca High students dropped out of the show, and formed the Students United Ithaca with two others, who's Facebook post of "student demands", letter-writing, and campaign organization against the musical paved the way for the action to be taken by the high school.

Following the complaints, the cancellation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was announced after a series of efforts by Students United Ithaca. The school's website announced a "collaborative project" would replace the show, but no details have yet been released as to what that may be.

As the story began to draw national support, it also began to draw negative national attention from right wing publications such as the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer and Breitbart, who argued that the race of the role of Esmerelda "shouldn't matter". From there, the online commentary began to escalate.

The New York Times reported an astonishing variety of threats made against the students and the school itself. For example, an anonymous message board "4chan", one post read that the students needed to be "dealt with". The Students United Ithaca Facebook page, threatening messages were sent to the high school aged children, calling them "the real Nazis" or "pathetic racist scum". According to the New York Times, one African-American student was tagged in a post that he believed insinuated a lynching: the post read that the student "is the reason we are looking for trees." Furthermore, students received images of themselves with swastikas edited on their faces, and parents were sent threatening emails about their "anti-white...brainwashed" children.

Such threatening trolling has understandably taken a toll on the students, many of whom are not yet eighteen. One of the students that the New York Times spoke to said, "This is very, very surreal. 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."

Offline, the high school's phone is ringing off the hook. The New York Times reported that the vice president of the Ithaca Board of Education, Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell, explained the school's concern about the "level of vitriol directed at our students." Additionally, he informed them that their district had received a hundred angry voicemails and fifty emails.

Photo Credit: Kevin Thomas Garcia

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