ITHACA, N.Y. – After a series of protests, a cancellation of a spring musical and a string of threats directed toward a group of students, Ithaca High School announced on Wednesday morning that students will begin auditions for the new spring musical “Hairspray.”

The announcement comes more than a month after five students spoke out about the lack of diversity within the theater department. In the first spring musical, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a white student was cast as Esmeralda instead of a person of color. The character is a French-Roma gypsy and popularly portrayed as a woman of color.

Students Eamon Nunn-Makepeace, Prachi Ruina, Maddi Carroll, Ari Cummings, and Annabella Mead-VanCort protested the casting decision and started a student group called Students United Ithaca to address the lack of education on anti-racism and anti-colonialism within the district.

After national media picked up the story about the controversy in February, multiple students reported receiving death threats and racially charged insults from online commenters. There are also reports that the student have been verbally harassed in person. After the months-long dispute, David Brown, director of Fine and Performing Arts at IHS, sent out an email releasing the initial details of the awaited new production.

Related: Ithaca High School cancels spring play in wake of student diversity demands

“We would love to see many students who have not previously auditioned for our shows to come out for this,” Brown said in an email. “If you ever thought you might be interested, this might be the perfect time.” 

Brown announced that a new director, Joey Steinhagen, will be in charge of the show. The change is on par with what students demands asking to replace director, Robert Winans, who some students felt played a role in the lack of diversity within the theater department

Steinhagen, resident director at Running to Places, founded the youth theater company in 2007 which brings local youth together to create fully-staged productions. A local actor himself, Steinhagen has also directed several musicals and plays in middle schools and high schools throughout the area.

Related: Ithaca teens receive death threats, harassment after ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ play cancellation

“I feel very strongly about the opportunity to communicate a message with the selection of the musical, which is why I insisted upon Hairspray as the only choice I would consider directing if hired,” Steinhagen wrote in a letter to the students. “Hairspray tells the story of young people who identify a racial and social injustice that they are experiencing. They come together, rise up, and tear down the walls that divide — and they do it with joy and love, through music and dance — in pursuit of a more just and beautiful future for all.”

Local choreographer Harmony Malone will be working with Steinhagen as the production of “Hairspray” begins.

Brown said an information meeting will be held for interested students after school at IHS in the black box theater, and transportation will be available for students who need it. Audition workshops will begin Friday and carry into Monday as a resource for students who are seeking more information on the process of auditions, Brown said.

Auditions for the show are set to begin next Tuesday and Wednesday. Further information on rehearsals and materials can be found here

Featured image: “Hairspray” by Mark Morgan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.