Civil rights groups praise Cherry Hill schools for its handling of Ragtime musical

Two civil rights groups on Wednesday praised the Cherry Hill school district for its handling of the national furor that erupted over the production of the musical Ragtime that included racial slurs.

In a joint statement, the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP Camden County East Chapter commended the South Jersey school system for using the controversy stemming from the production at Cherry Hill High School East into an “educational opportunity about racism.”

“The debates around this show reflect important national conversations on race and diversity. As a place of learning, Cherry Hill public schools rightly used this as a ‘teachable moment’ to shine the spotlight on the ugliness of racism and other forms of bigotry,” said Jeremy Bannett, the ADL's assistant regional director.

Ragtime closed Sunday after an eight-show run at Cherry Hill East. The musical was nearly canceled because of the controversy over use of the N-word and slurs against other ethnic groups.

The musical depicts the fictional story of a black family, a Jewish immigrant family, and a wealthy white couple in New York at the turn of the early 20th century. It includes themes of racism, intolerance, and injustice.

The school district consulted with the ADL, the NAACP, and other organizations to develop a response to the controversy, including education, outreach, and policy review, according to the statement.

“The district demonstrated educational leadership after being put in a very challenging situation, and being given very limited options.  We congratulate the school district and its outstanding leadership for its sensitivity, commitment, and efforts in recognizing the need to educate the student body on a part of American history that’s so often omitted in our schools and taking an entertainment-type production and transforming it into a truly educational experience, before, during, and hopefully long after the cast members take off their costumes,” said Lloyd D. Henderson, president of the NAACP Camden County East branch.

Cherry Hill school officials pledged to make Ragtime the occasion of discussions in English and history classes to help students deal with the thorny issue of race. Changes will be made in how school productions are selected in the future, officials said.

A chorus of artists and supporters, including Tony Award-winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, who played the lead character, Coalhouse Walker Jr., in Ragtime on Broadway, lobbied the district to let the play go on as scripted. Mitchell spent a day meeting with students and sharing his experiences.

Last week, Musical Theatre International, a New York-based licensing agency that handles copyrights, gave the school its Courage Award for proceeding with the play. The agency had refused to allow any changes to the script.

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