A children's production of the popular musical Hairspray has been cancelled amid a race row and allegations of "cyberbullying, threats and harassing behaviour".

The Northern School of the Performing Arts, based on Auckland's North Shore, had been working on presenting a performance of the show which is set in the US city of Baltimore during the segregated 1960s.

But the school faced criticism that the cast was not sufficiently ethnically diverse, and the show was cancelled.

Auckland actress and influencer Sabby Jey, whose parents came to New Zealand as refugees from Sri Lanka, says she contacted the school to ask them to increase the number of people of colour in the cast after a friend made a similar plea and was met with what Jey described as a "tone deaf, privileged" response.


The complaints were raised after global protests following the death of African-American man George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer.

Jey told the Herald that, in a cast of 50, only six were people of colour.

Kristin Paulse, a woman of colour from South Africa, made the initial complaint and asked the school to reconsider their casting, saying she had concerns around speaking out.

"The POC community feel afraid to address their racial issues and concerns in theatre, in
fear that their reputation might be harmed and that they won't be cast again," she said.

Paulse was initially unhappy with the response and contacted Jey after the influencer asked online how she could help support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Sabby Jey. Photo / Instagram
Sabby Jey. Photo / Instagram

Jey then contacted the school on social media, saying that the response was "racially insensitive" and asking that the cast being amended to include at least 25 per cent people of colour or else further action, including a petition, would be launched.

"If this isn't followed through, I will be reaching out to fellow influencers, actors and the media in my contacts and also share your messages," Jey wrote.

"Furthermore, we will be setting up a petition for the cast to be diversified or even the play to be called off."


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In a now-deleted post on their Facebook page, the school decided to pull the plug on the production.

"Out of respect for the horrific events taking place in the United States, we have chosen to amend our show season of Hairspray Jr," the school said in the post.

The school's statement. Photo / Facebook
The school's statement. Photo / Facebook

"After reaching out to the community surrounding both our Hibiscus Coast and North Shore-based studios, we auditioned and had a wonderful cast with the sufficient number of POC in our cast to effectively convey the story.

"The roles of Motormouth, Seaweed Stubbs and Little Inez Stubbs were cast with persons of colour, together with the Dynamites who were coloured or from an ethnic background.

"We are deeply apologetic to our wonderful cast as this is heartbreaking for them, however the safety of our cast and crew is paramount.

"Due to cyberbullying, threats and harassing behaviour of certain individuals it was becoming a safety issue for us to continue".

The Herald contacted the Northern School of Performing Arts who declined to comment, with a spokesperson saying that the school would issue a statement next week and had their own "story to tell".

The show was written for a diverse cast. Photo / Getty Images
The show was written for a diverse cast. Photo / Getty Images

It's unclear whether the production could have gone ahead regardless of the stoush. The rights holders for the musical recently issued an amendment to the terms under which the show is licensed.

Previously, productions could go ahead with predominately white casts with the writers noting that audiences should "suspend their disbelief".

After George Floyd's death, songwriter Marc Shaiman said that licensing company, Music Theatre International, will now be "requiring groups to cast the show so as to accurately reflect the characters as we wrote them".

"A show that specifically addresses one aspect of the black experience during the civil rights battles of the early 1960s deserves to have its characters accurately and appropriately portrayed on stage," he said.