Casting Controversy Derailed a High School Play. Then Came the Threats.

And while two productions of the new musical — its premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in California in 2014 and one in 2015 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey — gave the part to a woman of color, Ciara Renée, the casting calls for those shows invited actresses of all ethnicities to audition for the role. Music Theatre International, the licensing company that holds the rights to “Hunchback,” says that Esmeralda is a female, aged between 20 and 30, and that she is a “beautiful and free-spirited gypsy who possesses the strong sense of justice and morality.”

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.

Maddi Carroll, a 17-year-old African-American senior, said the high school’s staging of “Hunchback” was initially exciting to her “because we didn’t feel like our high school usually put on productions with women of color in starring roles.”

“We were talking about us being younger and thinking about Disney princesses we had to look up to. For us, we really had Jasmine and Esmeralda,” she added, referring also to the “Aladdin” character.

In the fall, after a white student was cast as Esmeralda for the show, a group of five classmates, including Ms. Carroll, formed Students United Ithaca. They began writing letters and organizing a campaign against the musical.


Disney’s depiction of Esmeralda in its 1996 animated film.


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.

“I call upon you to stop this musical now,” she said to the board. “You tear a community apart if you don’t.”

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

Mike Ellis, the father of the young actress who was originally cast as Esmeralda, said in an interview about the students’ protest: “Even though it involved a sacrifice on my daughter’s part, I think the questions that they’re asking are good, important questions that any school should want to ask itself.”

The events were reported on Jan. 29 in The Ithaca Journal. On Feb. 5, Breitbart picked up the news, writing that Esmeralda’s race “shouldn’t matter.” The publication has covered Hollywood’s recent casting controversies, including accusations of whitewashing when a white actor was cast in the film “Hellboy” to play a character portrayed as Asian in the original comic book.

The Daily Stormer published a post about the high school’s decision. Mainstream national outlets, including Fox News and The Washington Times, amplified the conversation.

The comments online became ugly. On a 4chan, an anonymous message board, one post said that the students “need to be ‘dealt’ with.” The Students United Ithaca Facebook page was particularly vitriolic, with some members receiving private messages saying, “You are the real Nazis of this country,” and “You’re a pathetic racist scum group.”

Ms. Ruina was told to go back to India. On Facebook, one African-American student’s personal page was tagged in a public comment that used a racial epithet, saying he “is the reason we are looking for trees.” The student interpreted this as a threat of lynching.

The Ithaca High School principal didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did the school district’s superintendent. Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell, vice president of the Ithaca Board of Education, wrote in an email that the board was “very concerned about the level of vitriol directed at our students.” He also said the district had received more than 100 angry voice mail messages and 50 emails.

The trolling has been taxing for the students. “This is very, very surreal,” Ms. Carroll said, adding, “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.”

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