Spring Musical Canceled

February 13, 2018

For years, South High School has prided itself in attracting students from around the world. The hallways and classrooms foster a blend of unique backgrounds and cultures; as a result, cultural diversity has become one of the cornerstone ideals of the South community. While the South administration and community attempts to preserve these philosophies, there are times when challenges come to the fold. The most recent of one of these challenges emerged amidst South Student Theater’s new production, In the Heights. In the Heights, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a musical highlighting and celebrating Hispanic-American culture in the neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. It appeared that this production would be a perfect way to highlight one of the cultures of South; however, controversy brewed as casting decisions were made. Concerns regarding cultural appropriation and favoritism during casting were brought to Principal Hanson’s attention, prompting constructive dialogue between South administration, theatre members, and members of the community. After some weeks of confusion regarding the future of the Spring Musical and the theater program, the decision was eventually made to cancel In the Heights all together. In addition, Dr. Rinaldi, South High’s Theater director of 18 years, decided to step down as director and released a statement addressing her resignation and the future of the theater program.

Chayah Brown, a senior at South, voiced her discontent with the original casting decisions of the theater program in a recent interview, stating “when the results of the casting came out, the only kids of color who got leads were casted as supporting roles.” Brown felt the theater program was showing favoritism towards students and didn’t provide others with enough opportunity. She mentioned a student that auditioned over a video tape, as she was out of town during the time in which casting was happening, however she states, “that wasn’t an option offered to any other students… Rinaldi required everyone to be at the auditions and the callbacks or else you would not be considered for casting.” Brown also mentioned the anger amongst the LatinX community about the final casting choices, which prompted them to create a form “that would get signatures from people who would support… that maybe we could recast the show or just express that they’re not happy”. Brown wished that more people had spoken at the community meeting, but believed that everything that had to be said was said. She expressed her content with the final decision of canceling the play, though “no matter what they [The South Administration] decided, it was going to be controversial.” Overall, Chayah hopes to see more policy in the future regarding opportunity for new theater kids to get the leads.

Along with Chayah Brown, Dr. Rinaldi, director of the South High Student Theater program, provided new insight on the events that have unfolded over the past couple of weeks. At the onset of this controversy, Rinaldi stressed that there was a problematic lack of communication, stating that only two students emailed her with concerns, and no one else talked to her about it. In addition, Rinaldi voiced her concern with the belligerence of interactions between students of opposing ideas during the community meetings, and the spreading of false information regarding the theater program. According to Dr. Rinaldi, many students were saying that “we didn’t follow a rule where if a kid gets a lead they can’t get another lead. That’s not true, that’s never been a rule, it’s not anywhere, there’s no rule.” Dr. Rinaldi stressed, however, that any lapses in information were not of malicious intent by students, and were simply just the latter: misinformation. Furthermore, addressing issues of student involvement in South Theater productions, Dr. Rinaldi assures that there is always a spot for whoever wants to be in a musical, saying “everyone at South whoever tries out for the musical can be in the musical.” She said that the casting policy has been consistent throughout the history of South’s theater program, and was used for the casting of In the Heights. That being said, musicals such as this demand extra consideration during the casting procedures, and policies regarding casting will be changing for future productions. Dr. Rinaldi references the crux of the new policy as, “when a kid gets an opportunity that they might not have had if they weren’t the best but they can really rise to that occasion.” However, Dr. Rinaldi will not be able to be involved in these future policies, as she stepped down from her position as director. Rinaldi implored that it was entirely her decision, stating that, “South High Student Theater isn’t Ms. R. It’s the kids, and I want the kids to be able to move on”. Dr. Rinaldi has exclaimed her appreciation for the opportunity to be South High’s Theater director for the past 18 years and is looking forward to continuing to teach as one of South’s English teachers.

Jennifer Hanson, the principal of South, spoke on behalf of the administration when she stated that, “in this situation, there is really not a simple win or solution”. Ms. Hanson has been confronted by groups of parents and students who were upset with the final decisions concerning the casting list. In response, Ms. Hanson set up meetings with students in hopes of reaching a solution, albeit it was easier said than done, “we had such opposing views. Some people wanted to continue, others wanted to recast, and some wanted to cancel the play.” Regardless, Ms. Hanson shares her appreciation for the parents who felt it necessary to get involved and also lauded Dr. Rinaldi for her position as leading director of the South High Theater program for the past 18 years. Ms. Hanson hopes to turn this experience into an “opportunity of learning”, as she believes that this isn’t the last time that these issues will present themselves. Ms. Hanson ultimately wishes to help equip the students with the tools necessary to positively engage a similar situation in the real world and for future plays and musicals, she wants to emphasize the importance of communication before a show, as she believes that it’s the best way to avoid a potentially controversial production.

Regarding the future of the South Theater program, many are hoping that communication will not only play a large part in deciding the plays, but will also absolve any apparent conflict. Mr. Hammoor, who is an NYU Theater graduate, will be taking over Dr. Rinaldi’s position and plans on producing a comedy production for the spring performance, American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose. Be sure to watch the Rebel Report this upcoming Thursday (2/15) for more information on the production.

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