New Jersey Production of Ragtime Faces Language Censorship

News   New Jersey Production of Ragtime Faces Language Censorship
 
The school plans to remove racial slurs from the musical, although the licensing agreement doesn’t allow change.
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald in Ragtime.
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald in Ragtime. Catherine Ashmore

Ragtime, the award-winning musical from Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally about the immigrant experience at the turn of the 20th century, is scheduled to play Cherry Hill High School East in New Jersey—but with a censored script.

According to NJ.com, the March production will be replacing or eliminating the n-word and other racial slurs in the script of Ragtime. The decision was made by school officials from the Cherry Hill High School East with approval from the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association and the Camden County East NAACP.

“After a very open and productive meeting between representatives from the East staff and the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association, we confirmed the decision to remove offensive language from the enacted script,” the district said in a statement provided to NJ.com by spokesman Barbara Wilson. “In addition, all students at Cherry Hill High School East will participate in learning activities stemming from Ragtime in an effort to use our history to further expose the ugliness of racism.”

Community members and the student body, however, are fighting for the school board to let the show go on “as is.” Aside from its artistic integrity, licensing company Music Theatre International does not allow changes, no matter how minor, to its properties. Read more about the dos and don’ts of MTI licensing here.

MTI has declined Playbill.com’s request for additional comment.

A board meeting will be held January 24 at 7 PM, and the Facebook group Cherry Hill United is encouraging the community to attend.

“While school officials have made a decision, it is not irrevocable,” a post by community member Selena Amara reads, adding that they will try and leverage the decision with the help of original Tony Award-winning Ragtime cast member Brian Stokes Mitchell, who told ArtsIntergrity.org that the language “needs to be acknowledged” after learning it would be changed.

Mitchell was part of a one-night-only concert of the musical last summer, staged on Ellis Island, where 12 million men, women, and children sought admission to the United States of America between the years of 1892 and 1954. Read about it here.

The Cherry Hill United Facebook group also posted a petition from the student body for community members to sign.

The petition reads, “For several reasons, including a potential loss in sympathy for the show’s oppressed characters, the robbing of integrity and artistic license for those involved in performing the show, and the possible setting of a precedent that would allow other important artistic works in East’s curriculum to be censored, the general student body involved in the production of Ragtime is highly displeased with this decision, and requests that it be overturned. Although we somewhat understand the reasoning behind this decision (and also understand that the Board wouldn’t have made it without the added pressure of several notable Civic Associations including the NAACP), we nonetheless ask that it be revoked, for the sake of Cherry Hill High School East's continued artistic freedom and ability to present history as it happened rather than how we’d prefer to remember it.”

Playbill.com reached out to Cherry Hill superintendent Joseph Meloche.

A reply from his spokesman, Wilson, reads, “Prior to the second public discussion at tonight’s Board of Education meeting, Dr. Meloche will read a statement regarding the discussions surrounding Ragtime. He will not be commenting on the discussions prior to the meeting.”

The meeting will be live streamed beginning at 7 PM. The agenda for the meeting can be found here.

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