Citing Sensitivity About Ragtime's Racial Content, IL Park Officials Cancel Show

News   Citing Sensitivity About Ragtime's Racial Content, IL Park Officials Cancel Show
A free outdoor production of the Tony Award-winning musical Ragtime in a suburban park in Wilmette, IL, was canceled by officials over concerns about the racially-charged language in the script and score.
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens

The staging, set to play the outdoor Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park, part of the Wilmette Park District in suburban Chicago, was already in rehearsals by the company of more than 40 when they got their notice. According to the Pioneer Press, on June 25 Wilmette Park District executive director Tom Grisamore canceled the show because he was concerned that passersby on the park grounds who did not know the context of the show would take offense to the word "nigger," which is used several times in the script and score of the history-steeped show about racism, community, family and justice.

Opening night at the open-air Wallace Bowl in Gillson Park was set for July 10.

"We had grave concerns that people would take the language they heard over the amplified sound system out of context from a performance that was being held in the bowl," Grisamore told the Pioneer Press.

Grisamore took the heat for this decision, telling the paper, "This is something we very honestly should have known about and hopefully we could have acted on this sooner, but we did as soon as we found out what was there."

The district got the rights to the show in January, but the content of the show was not examined until recent days. learned that a June 17 letter to the show's licensing agent, Music Theatre International, asked for changes in the script, and even included suggestions from Robert Bierie, performing arts supervisor of Wilmette Park District. MTI president Drew Cohen, who denied the right to change a word of the show, told that the Bierie-signed request suggested the no-less-offensive (out of context) words "darkie," "coon" and "boy" in lieu of the n word.

"I find this sad and also hilarious," Ragtime lyricist Lynn Ahrens told June 27. "It seems to sum up the blind ignorance of people who sit busily cherry-picking bad words, while not even bothering to read the script they are producing to understand its ideas or the context in which these words are spoken. We authors have always said that if people were uncomfortable producing the show, they shouldn't produce it. We feel the language is accurate and honest in the context of the era, and important to preserve. That hasn't stopped Ragtime from being produced in numerous theatres, high schools and colleges, where the heads of these institutions don't underestimate the intelligence of their audiences, whether comprised of children or adults, nor feel the need to censor and protect them from their own national history."

MTI's Cohen echoed Ahrens' sentiment: "Choose a different show, but don't be surprised if the authors and their representatives don't want to modify the show based on your suggestion. It was unfortunate that they let it get so far down the road before taking a close look at the script."

The 1998 Broadway musical, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, tells the tale of three disparate communities coming together in America in 1906. Racism, tolerance, assimilation and family are major themes that run throughout the musical, which won Tony Awards for Best Book (Terrence McNally) and Best Score (lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty).

Equity actor Ty Perry, who was directing the production, said in an earlier Pioneer Press interview, "You take that word out of this story and you invalidate my history as an African-American male. Do I like the word? No. But to pretend nobody said it is wrong. I wouldn't even consider [changing the script]. Context is everything, and it's not gratuitous, it's not for shock value."

Ahrens added, "My condolences to Mr. Perry, the artistic company, and to the citizens of Wilmette, who've been denied an opportunity to experience an exciting and thought-provoking show."

The actors of the Wilmette park production are not paid, but members of the creative team are.

MTI licenses a full version of Ragtime and a shorter amended version, but the race-related language remains in both. If high schools attempt it, a study guide is sent along to help stimulate discussion in the community.

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