No Decision Reached in Ragtime Censorship Dispute at New Jersey High School

News   No Decision Reached in Ragtime Censorship Dispute at New Jersey High School
 
The school board’s decision to cut racial slurs from the script brought over 100 community members to the school board meeting.
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald in Ragtime.
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald in Ragtime. Catherine Ashmore

At the January 24 Cherry Hill School Board meeting, no decision was reached in regards to changing the script of Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally’s award-winning musical Ragtime to eliminate racial slurs.

As previously reported, 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, had decided to replace or eliminate the n-word in the March production. However, members of the community and the student body were not happy with the decision and created a petition to reinstate the language and preserve the piece’s artistic integrity.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, over 100 people attended the board meeting to voice their opinion on eliminating key language in Ragtime.

Superintendent Joseph Meloche, who declined comment to Playbill.com before the board meeting, said that the district has contacted Music Theatre International, who licenses the property and must approve any changes to the script. Without authorization, he explained that the district would be “at a crossroads to determine whether to move forward with the show in its original form or to pursue other options.”

Click here to watch the board meeting, which was filmed and live-streamed.

Drew Cohen, president of Music Theatre International in New York, told the Inquirer that MTI “does not typically grant permission to change the Ragtime script.” On its website, MTI explains that changes are not allowed, no matter how minor, to its properties. Read more about the dos and don’ts of MTI licensing here.

The organization previously declined additional comment to Playbill.com on where they stand with Ragtime.

Performances are currently scheduled for March 10-12 and 17-19 at the Cherry Hill East Auditorium. More information can be found at CHETheatre.com.

School board officials explained that students would participate in learning activities stemming from Ragtime, but the student body—as well as original Tony Award-winning Ragtime cast member Brian Stokes Mitchell—feel that changing the language would sanitize history.

Click here for the petition from the Cherry Hill High School East student body, who ask that the decision “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.”

In a letter addressed to the school board from the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Dramatists Guild of America, and Arts Integrity Initiative, the organizations “urge” the school officials “to reconsider and reverse [the] decision to censor Ragtime.”

They add, “Ragtime’s use of racial slurs is an historically accurate and necessary aspect of a play that explores race relations in the early 1900s. Ragtime helps minors understand the brutalities of racism and the anger that has historically accumulated, partly through the use of racially offensive language. In contrast, censorship of such language ignores historical reality and presents a falsified, whitewashed view of race relations. Censoring the play will only perpetuate ignorance of our past.

“While we empathize with concerns about the emotionally disturbing effects of hearing or uttering racial slurs, we believe such concerns are to be resolved through educational means, not by censoring a renowned text. In our experience, similar concerns (around productions of To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men, for instance) have best been confronted through dialogue rather than censorship.”

(Updated January 26, 2017)

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