'Ragtime' star visits Cherry Hill high school

Tony Award-winning Actor Brian Stokes Mitchell visits Cherry Hill East for a talkback with students in preparation for the upcoming musical Ragtime.

When Broadway actor Brian Stokes Mitchell auditioned for Ragtime nearly 20 years ago, he knew what to expect when the musical hit the New York stage: The N-word would be hurled at his character.

Mitchell, the star of the original production, shared his experiences at Cherry Hill High School East on Friday, as he tried to help students tackle the thorny use of the N-word and other racially charged language in the school’s upcoming production.

He volunteered to visit the South Jersey school to help quell a furor that erupted over the musical in January after local civil rights leaders tried to halt its production. Mitchell joined a chorus of artists and supporters who said the play should go on as scripted.

“I knew what the show was. I knew that they were ugly words,” Mitchell told about 175 students in the auditorium. “That’s what the show is about.”

During a brief public question period, a student asked Mitchell whether he believed “total equality” would one day be achieved. Mitchell said he was unsure.

“It’s not going to happen if we don’t make our voices heard,” Mitchell said. “Anything worth anything in our life, you’re going to have to fight for.”

Mitchell met with students in a closed meeting for about an hour. He later told reporters that he tried to explain to students that Ragtime reflects the racism and bigotry of its time period. Reporters were admitted to a roped-off section of the auditorium as the gathering ended, but were barred from interviewing students.

“What makes me feel good is that this community, the school and the people are uncomfortable because it is ugly,” Mitchell told reporters. “Good. That’s the way it is supposed to be.”

Senior Cedric Middleton, 17, who plays Mitchell’s Ragtime pianist character in the local production, presented the actor with a Ragtime shirt that Mitchell immediately donned. “You just inspired all of us,” he said.

The civil rights leaders objected to the use of the N-word in the award-winning play and filed a complaint seeking to alter the script or halt the production. The play also includes slurs against other ethnic groups.

Ragtime 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 20th century. It includes themes of racism, intolerance, and injustice.

“The words in the play were carefully chosen. They exist in a context to send a message against the hate that underlies these words,” said Howard Sherman, director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama in New York City, who accompanied Mitchell to Cherry Hill on Friday.

Ragtime opens Friday for a nine-day run at Cherry Hill East. The audience will be advised that the play includes offensive language. There will be talk-backs with the audience after the Sunday matinees.

School Superintendent Joseph Meloche initially agreed to remove the N-word and lines targeting other ethnic groups from the musical. The play was selected last spring by students and approved by the theater department.

However, copyright laws prohibited modifying the script, leaving the district with the option of performing the musical as written or not all. It was too late to select another; rehearsals began in January.

The debate brought national attention to the South Jersey school of about 2,200 students, one of two high schools in the district. Besides support from Mitchell, an online petition drew more than 1,200 signatures.  

Mitchell also met privately for several hours Friday with local civil rights leaders, the Ragtime cast, and the school’s African American Cultural Club. He described the meetings as “heartening.”

“What I wanted to do was encourage the conversation,” Mitchell said after the meetings. “We need to talk to each other.”

Camden County East NAACP president Lloyd D. Henderson has maintained that the play is inappropriate and the N-word should not be used. Artistic freedom should not override the civil rights of those who may be offended by the slur, he said.

Henderson said Mitchell’s visit and curriculum lessons planned by the district will make the play “more than just entertaining, but educational. However, I sincerely doubt that this would have occurred without our community outcry.”

Mitchell, nominated for a Tony in the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the Broadway production of Ragtime, visited  Columbia High School in South Orange, N.J., in 2015 when students there performed Ragtime.

Mitchell and others in favor of staging it said it was important to give students the artistic freedom to perform the musical unaltered. The musical is based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow.

After meeting with students and a standing ovation, Mitchell, accompanied on piano by a student, Alex Glass, belted out a song from the musical, Make Them Hear You.”  He urged students to adopt the lessons from the show as life lessons:

“How justice was our battle

And how justice was denied

Make them hear you.”

Meloche said the district would use the play as a “teachable moment” to educate students about racism and stereotypes. Cherry Hill East students will have required discussions in history and English classes next week and have the option to see the musical during school.

In 1996, Cherry Hill removed 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.