High School Cancels ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ Production After White Student Cast as Lead

Esmeralda from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Walt Disney Company

A New York high school has canceled a production of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame after a white student was cast as Esmeralda.

A group of students at Ithaca High School has successfully derailed an upcoming production of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. The students, who call themselves Ithaca High School’s Students United Ithaca, penned a letter demanding the production be recast or shut down after a white student was cast as Esmerelda.

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 students continued, complaining that the student who had been cast had “hazel eyes” and blonde hair.” “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,” they wrote. The students then explicitly demanded the show be shut down.

We respectfully ask them to either:

1. Choose a different show and hold new auditions.
2. Do the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but recruit the many talented brown and black female students at IHS who have received the message that IHS musicals are a playground of the white privileged students of our school. We ask that these students are actively recruited and encouraged to audition. There are students who have never stepped foot in the choir room but can blow the roof off their church choir. They should be playing this role. It is their story to tell.

The Ithaca City School District announced last week that the Hunchback production would be shut down. “The active community engagement and conversation about the selection of the Hunchback of Notre Dame for the Ithaca High School musical has led to many conversations in our school district. This dialogue has affirmed our observations and wishes to have a more inclusive and culturally responsive learning community. In short, our efforts to eliminate institutional biases are ongoing,” the statement read. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame will not be performed this spring.”

A mother of one of the student’s that fought for the play’s cancellation defended the decision to take the play away from those students who had already been cast. “However, the loss experienced by the Hunchback cast must be considered in a broader context. While these students may be experiencing a loss this year, students of color experience loss throughout their whole education. The consequences of that loss will persist throughout their lives,” she wrote.

Although it shouldn’t matter, the source material for Hunchback, Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, does not specify Esmerelda’s race. “Esmeralda in the book is not 100% Romani (Gypsy). Her mother is a French women (sic) and while her Father could have been a Gypsy, it is never actually mentioned who was her father,” one blog about the novel wrote in a 2011 post.


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