A New Jersey high school production of the musical Ragtime will go on as originally written, handing a victory to those who opposed earlier plans to alter the script to eliminate racial slurs.
Dr. Joseph Meloche, superintendent of schools in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, struck a compromise between those who believed the in-period slurs were offensive in any context and those who supported the creators, who used the slurs to illustrate and dramatize the corrosive racial attitudes of the time in which the musical is set. The show will be presented as written and as scheduled March 10-12 and 17-19 at the Cherry Hill East Auditorium, but accompanied by a school curriculum about racism in America during that time.
Changing the script would also have violated the terms of the license with the writers.
Here is an excerpt from the letter Dr. Meloche released the afternoon of January 27:
In coming to a decision, our focus remains on our students, on their safety and their development—which has always been and always will remain our top priority. Education must take place in a safe way, in a safe environment. The final decision regarding Ragtime was not made based on a vote. We do not deem any individual or group who voiced an opinion in the process as wrong. Nor is any person or group more valuable than another. We are greatly appreciative of all who have joined the hours of discussion, and for the respectful manner in which most conducted themselves.
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. 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. The curriculum additions will allow all of our students to learn from the production without feeling threatened or disenfranchised. We will present resources and conversation regarding the production at each performance. We will make it abundantly clear that we loathe the N-word, that we despise this most vile of words in our language. We have been offered professional support in this endeavor from within the Cherry Hill Schools community and from professionals outside the community. We will be availing ourselves of those resources from now through the performance schedule of Ragtime at Cherry Hill High School east—opening on March 10, 2017 and closing on March 19, 2017—and into the future.
We look forward to continued conversations with the stakeholders who have generously and respectfully offered their time and perspective to this process. We also look forward to our community treating each other with kindness and respect moving forward.
There is much work to be done. Please, join us in supporting our children—all of our children—in moving forward. Be a positive voice, be part of a positive change.
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 a January 24 board meeting to voice their opinion on eliminating key language in Ragtime.
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 had urged the school officials “to reconsider and reverse [the] decision to censor Ragtime.”
They stated, “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.”
Dr. 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.
Performances are scheduled for March 10-12 and 17-19 at the Cherry Hill East Auditorium. More information can be found at CHETheatre.com.
(Updated January 27, 2017)