Cherry Hill schools grapple with N-word in 'Ragtime': Will the show go on?

Carey Savage, vice president of the Camden County East NAACP addresses meeting of the Cherry Hill school board Jan. 24, 2017, raising his opposition to use of the N-word in the Cherry Hill High School East spring musical "Ragtime."

Cherry Hill High School East students of all races made a passionate plea Tuesday night to school officials to allow the musical Ragtime to hit the stage without removing several racial slurs.

More than 100 people packed a Cherry Hill School Board meeting to press their case on whether the use of the N-word should be used in the upcoming production, the school’s spring musical. There were cheers, tears, and angst on both sides of the issue, which has brought national attention from Broadway stars, people affiliated with the arts, and civic groups weighing in.

Ezra Nugiel, a white student who plays a character in the play who utters the N-word several times, was among several cast members who asked the South Jersey district to rescind a decision announced last week banning the use of the N-word.

“I don’t say it [the N-word] happily, but I know I have to,” Nugiel told the board, which has two minority members. “We want to hear these words to not let history repeat itself.”

Cedric Middleton, a black student in the play, also supports using the script unaltered.

“I fully understand the feelings of discomfort,” he said. “Ragtime is how we get through such ugliness.”

Carey Savage, vice president of the Camden County East Branch of the NAACP, also made an emotional appeal, saying civil rights leaders don’t “need to be refreshed on what racism is by the unfettered use of this word.”

“You can’t call me the N-word and then tell me it’s art. I don’t care what your rationale is,” said Savage, of Voorhees, a retired school administrator. “I’ve been through too much for that.”

The school board took no action on the controversy Tuesday night during a meeting that lasted several hours.

Superintendent Joseph Meloche said the district has contacted Music Theatre International, the leading theatrical license agency, which must approve any changes to the script. Without authorization, 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,” he said.

Meloche said giving voice to the N-word “continues to breathe life into it. The word exists. I wish it didn’t.”

Drew Cohen, president of Music Theatre International in New York,  said in an email to the Inquirer that his organization “does not typically grant permission to change the Ragtime script.”

The play is set to open March 10 as the spring musical at the 2,100-student high school, one of two in the district. Ragtime was chosen last spring by Cherry Hill East's theater department, according to Meloche.

The Tony Award-winning musical debuted on Broadway in January 1998. It is based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow and includes themes of racism, intolerance, and injustice.

Ragtime depicts three families — black, Jewish and Eastern European — in New Rochelle, N.Y., at the turn of the century. In 1992, it received the NAACP Image Award for outstanding motion  picture.

A petition launched Monday by a Cherry Hill East student has received more than 1,200 signatures asking the school district for permission to use the unaltered script “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.”

“It’s a historical context,” said Bethelly Jean-Louis, 18, a black senior cast member whose parents immigrated from Haiti.

Student actors from the cast of the Cherry Hill High School East spring musical attend the meeting.

Following an appeal by civil rights groups,  Meloche last week said the N-word would either be replaced or eliminated, depending on the context of the lines in the play, he said.

Among those protesting any changes in the script is Brian Stokes Mitchell, who was nominated for a Tony for his role as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime.

In an interview with Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama in New York, Mitchell acknowledged that the racial slur is offensive and “represents a very old wound that has been freshly scraped open.”

“But, that is what the show is about. It is about terribly ugly things that happen to people and how they surmount that. Our country has an ugly history with race,” Mitchell said. "To take the ugly language out of Ragtime is to sanitize it and that does it a great disservice.”

Last week, Meloche said he agreed to remove the racial slur after concerns were raised by the NAACP and the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association. The mother of a student involved in the production complained to the NAACP.

Meloche could not provide a list of possible alternatives to replace the N-word, which is used several times in the script. He said disparaging lines from the play targeting other ethnic groups would also be removed.

Meloche said last week that all Cherry Hill East students will use a study guide from the production company to discuss some of the themes from Ragtime.

Senior Ashley Cooper, 17, who plays a leading role in the play as “Sarah,” said Tuesday night that students have already learned a lot during conversations about the N-word controversy.

“It’s important for all of the East community to see this show,” said Cooper, who is black. “We’re in such divided and divisive times.”

Ashley Cooper, 17, addresses a meeting of the Cherry Hill school board to discuss the spring musical, Ragtime.

Changing the script could violate copyright laws and licensing agreements for the show, according to Howard Sherman, who heads the Arts Integrity Institute at the New School for Drama.

“It is not the purview of anyone to alter a dramatic work without the author or authors’ approval, whatever their rationale,” Sherman wrote.

“You can’t make this a teachable moment if you sanitize the show,” said parent  Amy Breslow, whose son Jack is a senior and has a part in the play. “The show needs to be presented in its entirety.”

Similar controversies have erupted elsewhere in the country in recent years when other schools have presented Ragtime.

In 2015, a Minnesota high school used the word Negro as a substitute when controversy over the production arose there.

A suburban Chicago district canceled its production in 2008 after Music Theatre International refused to allow changes in the script. The district had proposed possibly using "boy" as an alternative to the N-word.

“We know that it’s sensitive. But if we don’t talk about it in schools, where are we going to talk about it?” said Maureen Costello,  director of Teaching Tolerance for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in an interview. “To remove it is the equivalent of erasing history.”