Cherry Hill will present ‘Ragtime’ production — with the N-word

Cedric Middleton, a student in the play, speaks in support of using the script unaltered. “I fully understand the feelings of discomfort,” he said. “Ragtime is how we get through such ugliness.”

A controversial production of the musical Ragtime, which uses the N-word, will be performed this spring at Cherry Hill High School East, district officials announced Friday.

Superintendent Joseph Meloche said the South Jersey district would allow its theater students to present the award-winning play as it was written, with the racial slur. The only other option was to not perform the play, he said.

“I loathe the word. I don’t believe the word should be used, ever,” Meloche said Friday.

Meloche reversed his decision announced last week banning the use of the word. He had proposed substituting another word, or eliminating it along with  derogatory words for other ethnic groups.

Lloyd D. Henderson, president of the Camden County East branch of the NAACP, said the civil rights group was disappointed by Friday’s decision. The issues raised by the NAACP and others forced the district to consider the offensiveness of using the N-word, he said.

“The administration flip-flopped due to a small group of majority white theater students and their supporters,” Henderson said in a statement. “Using the excuse of literary or artistic freedom and/or censorship, the N-word is back as the topic of entertainment.”

Meloche made the decision a day after meeting with the NAACP and more than a dozen community leaders and school officials. He said he took full responsibility for the decision, which he said was not based on a vote by the school board, which has two minority members.

“This is just really a win-win for the arts and for free speech,” said Ezra Nugiel, 17, a senior who plays a racist character in the musical. “I’m glad that at the end of the day, we got our message across and will be able to do the show in its original form.”

Ragtime depicts the fictional story of a black family, a Jewish immigrant family, and an Eastern European family in New Rochelle, N.Y., at the turn of the century. It includes themes of racism, intolerance, and injustice. The N-word is uttered several times by Nugiel’s character.

Because of copyright and licensing laws, Music Theatre International, the New York theatrical agency that licensed the play, would not approve any changes to the script.

Drew Cohen, president of the licensing agency, applauded the district’s decision to present the musical  as planned and include an educational component. Theater, he said, “is intended to stimulate discourse as well as entertain.”

Before the production hits the stage, Meloche said, students at Cherry Hill East, one of two high schools in the district of 11,350 students, will  discuss some of the themes from Ragtime in English and history classes. All East students will see the play during school, the superintendent said.

Meloche said signs will be displayed at the performances to alert the audience about the themes and language. The cast will also make a brief statement before the curtain goes up at each performance, he said. A talk-back session will be held with the audience after the two  Sunday matinees, he said.

“We will make it abundantly clear that we loathe the N-word, that we despise this most vile of words in our language,” Meloche said in a statement.

Civil rights groups objected to the use of the N-word and petitioned the district to scrap the play. The mother of a black student at Cherry Hill East who is a stagehand in the production complained to the NAACP.

The controversy brought national attention from Broadway stars, people affiliated with the arts, and civic groups. They argued that the play should be presented with the historical context and language to accurately reflect the bigotry and racism of that time.

At a heated school board meeting Tuesday, appeals were made by both sides. An online  petition started by students asking the district to allow the show to proceed with the slur has received nearly 2,000 signatures.

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

“It’s the journey of the 20th century and it’s still our journey today. The N-word is still thrown around without empathy,” Mitchell told the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama in New York.

In an editorial, Cherry Hill East’s online publication, Eastside, pushed for the uncensored production of Ragtime. It noted that the school’s critically acclaimed thespian troupe has tackled other racially sensitive plays, such as To Kill a Mockingbird in 2010.

Ragtime exposes a scar on our history that cannot be ignored, for if we do not learn from the past, it is bound to repeat itself,” the editorial said.

Ragtime was selected last spring by Cherry Hill East students and approved by the theater department, officials said. The production will cost about $38,000, said district spokeswoman Barbara Wilson.

“I am thrilled that the show will go on,” said Amy Breslow, whose son, Jack, a senior, has a part in the musical. “We will all benefit in the end.”

Mitchell has offered to come to Cherry Hill to lead group discussions at the school about the play and help students address racism, said Howard Sherman, who heads the Arts Integrity Initiative.

“We’re working on dates,” Sherman said Friday. The show opens March 10.

Before every performance, Curtis Middleton and Nugiel, who portray Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Willie Conklin, will explain their characters to the audience, the superintendent said.  At the end of every performance, the audience will be again reminded that the show reflects bigotry of that time, he said.

“Obviously it’s just my character saying it and not me. I know that it’s a word that shouldn’t be used outside a production,” Nugiel said.

David Snyder, executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council   of Southern New Jersey, agreed with the decision and expressed appreciation for sensitivity given to the potential impact of the words used in the play..

Because of the controversy, the district will change how theatrical productions are selected in the future, Meloche said. The same curriculum standards used to review other classroom materials will be applied and will require approval by the superintendent, he said.

Ragtime debuted on Broadway in January 1998 and is based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow. In 1992, the film version received the NAACP Image Award for outstanding motion  picture.

The NAACP argued in part that artistic rights should not outweigh the civil rights of black students and those in the community who find the racial slur offensive. The Cherry Hill African American Civic Association also objected.

Said Henderson of the NAACP: “How many people go to the theater for education? It’s entertainment first. Then anything else is what they call ‘a teachable moment’ because that’s all it is, a moment.”

Cherry Hill was embroiled in another controversy about race in 1996, when black parents complained about the use of the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which uses the N-word more than 200 times. The district pulled the Mark Twain classic from the curriculum.

The school board later voted to reintroduce the book as an option, but incorporated the novel into a new unit on slavery, stereotypes, and racism. That approach won academic acclaim and was included in a PBS documentary as a model for educators.

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