A group of teenage activists shut down a high school production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" in Ithaca, N.Y., after a white student was cast as Esmerelda.
Citing “whitewashing” and “cultural appropriation,” the group of young social justice warriors insisted that only “a black or brown female student” would be an appropriate Esmerelda. You read that correctly: They want race to be a disqualifying factor for deciding who gets the part. Would they demand that the student who plays Quasimodo actually have a hunched back?
The entire point of theatre is that every actor pretends to be someone they’re not. Suppose the school wanted to stage "The Little Mermaid" next year. Would this group demand that Sebastian only be played by an actual crab? One would hope not.
Since its development in ancient times, theater has worked like this: Actors put on costumes, take on roles, and speak and sing someone else’s words, while performing someone else’s choreography. If you’re being entirely yourself, you’re not acting.
Let’s pretend for a moment that these students are right. Let’s suspend all logic and say that no actor should play a character of another race. Then, must Esmerelda be someone who isn’t white? Not quite. In the original book by Victor Hugo, Esmerelda comes to France by way of Hungary. Her biological mother is French and her father is never revealed. Culturally, she was raised in the Romani community. In terms of race, she’s half white and half racially ambiguous.
The angered students dismiss this entirely. The group, Students United Ithaca, maintains that the play and the book are two separate works, even though they’re both the same story told in different formats. In short, they claim that Esmerelda can’t be white, not because of anything written in the play, but because they feel like it.
Students United Ithaca wrote, “Stop the racist and openly stated policy of ‘color blind’ casting in the [Ithaca City School District].” Colorblind casting means that a student’s race is not considered when deciding who gets which part. These social justice warriors want a school to deny a student an opportunity because, they say, she is the wrong race.
If only they had allowed the play to go on, they could have seen the beautiful story of "Hunchback." Esmerelda and Quasimodo are hated by an angry Parisian mob because of ethnicity and disability, but they’re heroes because of the kindness and integrity that lies inside. Instead, these terribly misled students insist that it’s what’s on the outside that counts.
Angela Morabito (@AngelaLMorabito) writes about politics, media, ethics, and culture. She holds both a Bachelor's and Master's degree from Georgetown University and has appeared on "On the Record with Greta van Susteren" as well as "Cavuto: Coast to Coast."