Cherry Hill school district pulls the 'N-word' from Ragtime production

Lloyd D. Henderson, president of the Camden County East Branch of the NAACP.

The musical Ragtime will go on at Cherry Hill High School East without the use of a racial slur, district officials said Friday.

Civil rights groups lodged a protest this week denouncing the upcoming production at the 2,100-student high school, one of two in the district. The original script uses the N-word several times.

In a letter Wednesday to the school district, one of the largest in South Jersey, the Camden County East Branch of the NAACP appealed to the the school superintendent to make changes.

Branch president Lloyd D. Henderson told schools chief Joseph Meloche that using the term "in a live production to the general public at-large is in our opinion a very poor decision."

"Why that play, at this time? I just don't understand," Henderson said in an interview Friday. "I think it should be another play."

Meloche said the concerns were discussed Thursday with the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association and others after a parent complained.

The N-word will either be replaced with another word or eliminated, depending on the context of the lines in the play, he said. He could not provide a list of possible alternatives.

"We will not be allowing the use of the N-word to be spoken by our students," Meloche said. "I don't endorse the use of the word, nor will it be used on our stage."

The play is set to open March 10 and is the school's spring musical. Ragtime was chosen last spring by Cherry Hill East's Theater Department, Meloche said.

The Tony award-winning musical debuted on Broadway in January 1998 and is based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow and includes themes on racism, tolerance, and justice.

Ragtime depicts the 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.

Henderson said the NAACP was contacted by a Cherry Hill parent who filed a complaint about the play. The parent of a student involved int he production had tried to resolve the matter with school officials.

Despite the changes, the NAACP plans to attend the Cherry Hill School Board's meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m., Henderson said.

Henderson said the NAACP group was surprised that "a top school district in South Jersey would allow this type of decision to be made, knowing that it could divide the community."

Emma Waring, president of the Civic Association, applauded the proposed script changes. The district also plans to remove disparaging lines from the play targeting other ethnic groups, Meloche said.

"They will look at all the language in the script. So that it is OK for production," Waring said. "We will support the outcome."

In the Facebook group "Cherry Hill United," resident Bill Magee disagreed with the decision to change the language in the play. He said the offensive language serves a purpose.

"It is intended to make us feel uncomfortable, to look at each other (and) realize the hurt it causes," Magee wrote. The language is offensive. It is supposed to be."

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

"The play is reflective of the some challenges that existed then and unfortunately exist today," Meloche said. "The reality of the world around us is that people use inappropriate words.

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

In 2015, a Minnesota High school substituted the word "Negro" when a controversy over the production there arose there.

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

In 1996, Cherry Hill removed the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum after complaints by black parents about ethnic slurs and derogatory portrayals of blacks.

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.

mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814 @mlburney