Author Topic: Casting Controversy Derailed a High School Play. Then Came the Threats. [NYT: Soft Paywall]  (Read 510 times)

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Casting Controversy Derailed a High School Play. Then Came the Threats.
By SOPAN DEBFEB. 8, 2018

Ciara Renée as Esmeralda in a 2015 production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Credit Matthew Murphy

It started as a local debate over a New York high school production of the musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” A white teenager was cast in the lead role of Esmeralda, a 15th-century Roma woman, spurring young student activists to object.

Last month, after much discussion in the community, Ithaca High School pulled the show, aiming to replace it with something else. But the story doesn’t end there.

Those same students are now besieged by an online mob targeting them with threats and racial epithets after the incident was reported in right-wing publications like Breitbart News, then spread to the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer.

Via Facebook, the students received pictures of themselves with swastikas plastered on their faces. One parent had what was thought to be her home address (it wasn’t) posted online with a comment seeming to encourage harassment: “Do your thing social media.” Another parent received a profane email, assailing her for embracing “anti-white racism,” adding: “I feel sorry for your brainwashed child.”

Ithaca High School, in upstate New York, was to stage the musical, based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo and the 1996 Disney animated film, in mid-April. In Hugo’s book, it is unclear whether both parents of Esmeralda are Roma. Also known as Gypsies, Roma are descendants of migrants who arrived in Europe from India more than a millennium ago. They have historically been disparaged across the continent, with many remaining impoverished to this day.


But in the Disney film, Esmeralda has a dark complexion. And that is the version that Ithaca High School students grew up watching. That depiction, plus the precedent of Ms. Renée’s casting, led some to believe the part would go to one of the high school’s students of color, who make up 34 percent of the student body.


In January, Annabella Mead-VanCort, a senior who did not audition for the play, wrote a letter to Tompkins Weekly, a local publication, and had more than two dozen co-signers. It asserted that Esmeralda was accurately depicted in the Disney film and that the part was written for a young woman of color. “Esmeralda is a Roma, part of an oppressed class of people,” she wrote. “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.”

After the outcry, the school board held a community meeting on Jan. 23, when a number of students showed up wearing black in solidarity with the young activists, including Prachi Ruina, who had auditioned for the musical, and was cast in the ensemble.


The next day, the school board announced that “Hunchback” would be pulled and a new production would be proposed.

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