Speaking Up: How Five Ithaca High School Students Protesting School Musical Became Targets of Hate and How They're Rising Above It

Alex Chester

In January, due to the protests of a group of students at Ithaca High School in Ithaca, NY over the casting of a white actress in the role of Esmerelda in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", the school decided to cancel the production altogether. 

The character of Esmerelda is a Romani gypsy whose origins are described as "Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Sindh regions of modern-day India and Pakistan."

The issue of "whitewashing" roles written for people of color has been far-reaching from Hollywood to Broadway to Community Theatre and now high schools. The issue at Ithaca High School made national headlines including a piece in the New York Times.

It's important to note that these students were not only protesting the casting of a white actress in a role of color, but also the theatre department's history of selecting shows with white principal characters, thus denying performers of color the opportunity to break through color conscious casting. For instance, their immediate previous musicals have been Legally Blonde, Anything Goes and Mary Poppins. 

The reaction has been intense, to say the least, everything ranging from outrage to applause. Not only have these students stood up to their school board, but to complete strangers as well.

I would like to note that this outcry against a “white” student being cast as Esmerelda has nothing to do with talent or not getting cast in a show as some small minded people might like to think. It has everything to do with bigger social problems; that people of color do not matter, that our voices do not matter. If children of color can’t even be represented in their own school theatrical productions, then this is a huge problem to me. 

As a Performer of Color(POC) myself, I've made it my mission to showcase those that fight for inclusion in the arts. Thanks to theatre advocate, Howard Sherman, I was able to speak with the five heroic students of Ithaca, Annabella Mead VanCort, Maddi Thrasher-Carroll, Ari Burch, Eamon Nunn, and Prachi Nouhuys to give them a platform to express what happened at their school and how they are fighting for diversity and inclusion. 

Alex: First of all, I want to say that speaking out against the whitewashing of the role Esmeralda took so much bravery. I applaud you for standing up for the underrepresented and standing your ground. It is students like you that make me less worried about the world. Have you all been activists in your community and school? Or is this the first time you decided to make a stand?

ANNABELLA: I have pushed back on policies at our school before, but only in a personal way by not adhering to the dress code. This, however, is the first time I would truly say I am an activist. 

MADDI: I’ve voiced my opinion on issues and taken a stand on things I’m passionate about, but nothing I’ve done has ever gotten this big or this much attention. 

ARI: Personally this is the first time I have taken a stand and been an activist in the Ithaca community. I have always spoken to people about issues on race, but not in a public way. I realized that by not speaking to the public about it, it wasn’t going to solve any of the problems that I was seeing. 

EAMON: This is a first time for me personally but I’ve been seeing my mother and countless others try time and time again that enough is enough and now it’s our turn.

PRACHI: This is my first time taking a stand and also identifying as an activist. 

Alex: I believe representation matters. It is something I and many others are continually fighting for. In your own words can you describe why and how this whole thing started?

ANNABELLA: This all started when Prachi and I saw the cast list for “The Hunchback”. We realized that the casting of this show was a representation of the ICSD performing arts program as a whole. If we ignored this, we would be condoning it. So we wrote the two original letters. I wrote the one signed by over two dozen students, Prachi wrote about her own experiences. We sent them to the Tompkins Weekly and after that, it just began to spread.

MADDI: This movement started when the high school announced that they were casting a white girl as Esmeralda, even though community members had notified them how important it was to cast a woman of color. Prachi and Ella wrote letters that were later published online and then circulated throughout the community. Ari, Eamon and I read these letters and had similar feelings and knew that what was going on was wrong and decided to all band together to make a change. As our movement has grown, we’ve learned that this issue is so much bigger than this one musical, and this one part this one time. It is systematic and deeply rooted in how we learn. But, if we want to make a change we have to start somewhere. 

ARI: In a way it was simple. Annabella and Prachi noticed a big ongoing issue throughout the arts in ICSD and realized that they needed to take a stance and say how wrong it is. Personally, I never noticed this issue because I was very privileged in the arts having voice, dance, and acting lessons. After I read Prachi’s article it broke my heart. I realized that this was a huge issue and I needed to speak out about it too. I have always found SO much joy and love in the performing arts, and to find out that there were people that didn’t even feel safe enough to audition really woke me up. I want everyone to find the same happiness I have found in the arts and feel safe and welcomed while doing so. 

EAMON: This to me all started when Annabella and Prachi wrote letters after seeing the cast list for the Hunchback and the signing of those letters.

John McGinty and Lesli Margherita in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in CA Photo: Charr Crail

John McGinty and Lesli Margherita in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in CA Photo: Charr Crail

PRACHI: It started when the cast list for Hunchback was released. I decided that this was an issue that couldn’t be pushed aside anymore. I wrote a letter about my own personal experiences within the theater program in the district and Ella wrote one about the main issue with the casting decisions for Hunchback. Then we sent the letters to a local paper and it went on from there. 

How has the rest of your school reacted to the replacement of Hunchback

ANNABELLA: There are many students in the school who support us. What is important is that the students are talking about it. We have created a real conversation with this movement, one that I hope will continue to grow.  

MADDI: There are many people, students, and staff, who completely support us and love us, and there are others who do not agree or understand. But I think that what’s more important than if people agree, is that the conversation has been started. People are talking about race, and getting educated and that is the greatest thing. 

ARI: Other students in the school, that were not in the show, are responding in a very positive way and are giving us a tremendous amount of support. 

EAMON: There are a couple students who do not agree with what we are doing but we have so much support from people around the community and a lot in the school.

PRACHI: There are a lot of students in the school that are supportive. This issue has brought up conversations that should have happened years ago.

What has the response been like among your peers?

ANNABELLA: At first the school was extremely divided on the subject, however, the more we talk about it and educate people the more support we gained. 

MADDI: People at first really didn’t understand what we were doing and why, they thought we just wanted to steal the musical away from people but as the movement has progressed, people are starting to understand more and talk about it more and support us more. 

ARI:  At first many students that were involved in the show were a bit mad that the show got cancelled, but after many realized what the bigger issue is, the support grew. Many are now on board with our movement.

EAMON: At first it as a divided issue but as it progressed the more support we got from the school and our peers.

PRACHI: In the beginning, a lot of students were upset that Hunchback was not going to happen. Now they realize the bigger issue and support us and the movement. 

I am so sorry for the amount of hate you have received. Please know there is a community of actors and people in the entertainment industry that are applauding you. My Facebook was blowing up with all my friends sharing your New York Times article and proclaiming your "bad-assery". How are you each dealing with these people who are full of hate? Is there anything you would like to say to them?

ANNABELLA: The hate we are receiving is a catalyst. The more hateful comments and messages we get, the more I realize how much people need to be educated about race. I am more determined than ever to bring about change and spread awareness about these issues. 

MADDI: I’ve learned that the more hate we get, the more love that counters it. People have been reaching out on our Facebook page and individually to tell us how much they love us and are there for us and support our movement. I want the people that are commenting hate that we are not going to stop until we get a change in the way that things are done. We are not going to fight their hate with more hate, but instead with love. We are an unstoppable force. 

ARI: What I have taken away from the hate that we received is that when there is an issue that is scary to talk about, which happens with racial issues a lot, there is always pushback from people that don’t want change. For me the hate that we received didn’t impact me in a negative way, it pushed me to keep continuing and showed me that we are doing the right thing. 

EAMON: The hate comments are very overwhelming but the amount of support we have to fight back against that hate is outstanding.

PRACHI: The hateful comments were a little scary for me at first but they are pushing me to keep going with this movement. And if I could say anything to those people it would be that your comments have only motivated us to go further with this movement and we aren’t going to just go away.

Has this experience dissuaded you from pursuing the performing arts in the future? I know for a fact we need more people like you to stand up for inclusion in the arts!

ANNABELLA: Not at all, this experience has shown me how vital the arts are to society. The arts can be used to showcase the beauty of diversity and celebrate people’s culture. If I didn’t care about the arts so much, I wouldn’t be working this hard to change it. 

MADDI: Not at all, this experience has shown me how theater changes lives. If this hadn’t happened there would be so many people who had no idea that race was an issue. Theater is transformative and a beautiful outlet, and I’m so thankful for it. I will in the future be more aware of the injustice in the arts and fight for what is right. 

ARI: No, not in any way. I plan on pursuing Acting as a career and if this experience has done anything for me, in that aspect, it has shown me that there are issues in things that I thought were pure joy, and we all need to work to make sure everyone feels included in something that is so great. 

EAMON: No, this has shown me that the more I see that my peers and I think is wrong that there is a way to change It and that no matter who you are this will open doors for you

PRACHI: No, it has opened my eyes to see that this isn’t just something that happens in Hollywood, but something that happens everywhere and that the arts are so powerful.

Thank you so much and here's to changing the world and making it a better place!

Alex is a former contributor to Huff Po, she has an online magazine called Hapa Mag and a theatre company WeSoHapa. Follow her on social media @AlexFChester

Pictured: Annabella Mead VanCort, Maddi Thrasher-Carroll, Ari Burch, Eamon Nunn, and Prachi Nouhuys