A New Jersey high school that received national attention earlier this year when attempts were made to censor the script to the musical Ragtime is receiving praise for its decision to present the work as written.
Based on the E.L. Doctorow novel that concerns the immigrant experience in America at the turn of the 20th century, the musical by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally includes the n-word and other racial slurs to accurately depict tensions of the time period.
Officials at Cherry Hill High School East initially planned to replace or eliminate the offensive words from the script; however, following outcry from students and community members (in addition to the threat of losing rights to the production for making unauthorized edits), it was decided that Ragtime would go on as originally written.
Music Theatre International, which licenses the musical, is honoring students and school administrators with its Courage in Theatre Award for using the controversy surrounding their production of Ragtime as a teachable moment. The award is bestowed to an “organization that uses the power of the arts to affect positive change in their community in the face of adversity.”
“These are tumultuous, difficult times. We believe that while these difficult times provide challenges in our educational community, they also provide an opportunity and an obligation to educate,” said school superintendent Dr. Joseph Meloche in a statement. “We believe we can educate using difficult subject matter presented in a safe, sensitive way. To that end, Cherry Hill High School East will present Ragtime as written. The school community will be supported by curriculum and conversation leading up to and continuing through the show’s performance dates and beyond....We will make it abundantly clear that we loathe the n-word, that we despise this most vile of words in our language.”
"We at Music Theatre International were impressed with the maturity, dedication, and courage of the Cherry Hill East community not just in persevering with their production of Ragtime but in engaging in thoughtful, often emotional, debate as to the merits of proceeding with the show. In our licensing of a wide variety of musicals to schools around the world, we see many instances where the performers and audiences learn about culture, history and the arts through their productions. At a time where civil and respectful discourse can be difficult to find, we were particularly moved by the Cherry Hill community's in-depth consideration of the issues surrounding this production and ultimately by the decision to use the show as an instrument of education," said Drew Cohen, President of Music Theatre International in a statement.
The show’s writers also praised the school’s decision in a joint statement, which reads: “Ragtime is a story of our beloved country — its glories, its follies and its gross wrongs. Doctorow’s vision of America is human and humane. There are good people and bad people in Ragtime, but above all there are people trying to do the right thing, no easy task in a country then, as now, still in the process of defining itself. Cherry Hill’s thoughtful, respectful and emotional community discourse was a vision of our country at its very best. We applaud the community of Cherry Hill for voicing deeply-held concerns on all sides. We thank the educators for their willingness to listen, and to consider every argument. And bravo to the students for their articulate brilliance and commitment. The theater is a better place everyone who took part.”