'Ragtime' in Cherry Hill: A show worthy of the soul-searching

When the villain Willie Conklin casually hurls the N-word at Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the script for the hit Broadway musical Ragtime, the hero keeps his composure. He’s black, Conklin is white, and the setting is early-20th-century America, where the insult is an all-too-common expression of oppression.

And on Friday, when student actor Jared Camacho spewed the slur at classmate and fellow thespian Cedric Middleton, the opening-night audience at Cherry Hill High School East seemed to take it in stride. Because in early-21st-century America, racist language can provide an opportunity for community education and arguably, communal uplift.

“Not only do we personally decry the use of this language, but we … actively reject it,” Middleton announced at the start of the show. Standing beside him on the East stage, Camacho said: “It is [our] wish … that tonight’s focus not just be on the uncomfortable words, but on the positive message Ragtime has to offer.” 

Thus, after weeks of controversy and classroom discussions, an inspiring visit by Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell, and countless hours of rehearsal, East’s impressive and heartfelt production of  Ragtime has begun an eight-show run. The final performance is next Sunday.

Based on a 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow and made into a successful movie in 1981, Ragtime, with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens,  debuted on Broadway in 1998. Two decades later, the musical’s bracing candor about race, gender, immigration, and the relationship between the black community and law enforcement makes it strikingly topical.

Cherry Hill’s admirably earnest production does justice to the sprawling fictional saga of a black musician (Walker) victimized, radicalized, and eventually destroyed by a society that’s saturated with, if not predicated upon, racism.

The show is demanding, narratively complicated, and technically complex. But from the orchestra pit to the chorus lines to the star turns, the kids are wonderful.

And theater lovers like Cherry Hill blogger Dan Cirucci have praised the district’s decision to do Ragtime despite opposition. "It speaks well of the students that they insisted on performing the show as it was meant to be performed,” he said.

“Now, it's a life lesson for them, not just a history lesson."

Cherry Hill clearly has done some soul-searching since mid-January, when a local NAACP chapter, as well as a township African American civic group, objected to the prospective spectacle of white students calling black classmates the N-word on East’s hallowed stage.

After declaring such use of the slur unacceptable, and then floating the ill-advised notion to arbitrarily edit the script, Cherry Hill School Superintendent Joe Meloche decided the show must go on as written (and as required by the licensing agency Music Theatre International).

The district undertook to enlarge Ragtime into a school- and community-wide educational process, one enveloped in carefully worded warnings -- in the box-office voicemail message, at the box office itself, and onstage in pre- and postshow remarks.

“We did not see [the initial reaction] coming,” longtime East theater director Tom Weaver, who initially selected and got approval for Ragtime, told me after Friday’s performance. He added that attention from the public and the media  -- including from an online New York theater publication  --  “put more pressure on our shoulders, but the kids were great, and I believe we told the story well.”

I agree. I also agree with Weaver that the relatively sparing use of the N-word in the play deepens the slur’s dramatic power.

By my count, the word is heard 10 times, mostly from the hateful mouth of the Conklin character. But it’s also sung: In the latter part of the show, Coalhouse, his wife dead and his life in ruins, sings a line declaring "I’m not their” N-word.

This put me in mind of James Baldwin, who surely was not a man to mince words (as a new documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, attests).

And as I watched Ragtime with a predominantly white audience in a school district and township where whites remain a majority,  it struck me that neither the presence (nor, had the writers made this choice, the absence) of the N-word generates the eloquent power of the play itself.

After all (spoiler alert), this is a show in which the persecuted hero fights back before being  gunned down -- with his hands up -- in the final moments. 

The slur “is tough for me to hear, knowing there are people today who still harbor those feelings,” said Philadelphia civil rights lawyer Danny Elmore, an East alum (Class of '73) who sat behind me at Friday’s performance. “The images of hate, without the N-word, are powerful.”

Even Middleton, whose brave and deeply affecting portrayal of Coalhouse is one of several standout performances in East’s production,  said it was at first difficult for him to hear it from cast members, one of his best friends among them.

“It was like a tug in my heart,” he said, adding that he ultimately put the pain to use in building his onstage character.

East and the school district have made an admirable effort to present a challenging piece of popular entertainment. With its unsparing depictions of ugly events, Ragtime isn’t really a show about love, as supporters of the show might like us to believe.

But as Camacho said in Friday’s preshow announcement, the musical “shows us how far we’ve come as a nation, and how far we still have to go.”

Bravo.