There is no question that there are racially charged words in the musical Ragtime, just as there were in the novel upon which it is based. In telling the story of black characters, of Jewish characters, of Irish characters at the turn of the 20th century, these words are integral to portraying the racism and bigotry that were rampant in that era. The artists who created the show – Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens – and the many who have since staged and performed it, understand the ugliness that is inherent in that language and have not deployed it lightly.
In the two decades since Ragtime debuted on Broadway, it has been produced countless times and in countless venues. A most affecting concert version was performed this summer on Ellis Island, the very site where many immigrants entered the United States for the first time.
A production at Cherry Hill High School East in New Jersey, scheduled for March 10, is now facing censorship over the racial epithets embedded in the script. While the school says it is prepared to go forward with the show, it will do so by making unauthorized alterations in the text. In a statement, the school district said:
The Cherry Hill High School East community is approaching the production of this show from a learning disposition. Within our educational community we have been engaging in a dialogue regarding the offensive language in the show. We are indebted to the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association as well as individuals in our community for joining us in this discussion regarding the use of bigoted language in the script. After a very open and productive meeting between representatives from the East Staff and the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association, we confirmed the decision to remove offensive language from the enacted script. In addition, all students at Cherry Hill High School East will participate in learning activities stemming from Ragtime in an effort to use our history to further expose the ugliness of racism. We apologize for any negative impact that the potential inclusion of the racist language had on members of our community and we are thankful that we have educational leaders, student leaders, and community leaders with whom we can partner when concerns arise.
There will be a board of education meeting this evening in Cherry Hill where this topic will be addressed as well, albeit on an agenda that currently runs to 28 pages.
What the district has failed to address in any of its statements, or in interviews with NJ.com or the Philadelphia Inquirer, is that by making any changes to the script, they are in violation of both copyright law and the licensing agreement for the show. It is not the purview of anyone to alter a dramatic work without the author or authors’ approval, whatever their rationale. If it is the intention of the school board to affirm the school’s stated position, their legal counsel would do well to inform them that the school is predicating its action on a legally untenable premise and could well result in the loss of the right to produce the show.
That said, it is important to understand that while schools shouldn’t endorse hate speech or action against any group, the enacting of our unfortunate racial history is not the same as propagating the language that was part of it. (This recalls a similar situation in Connecticut in 2011 over Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and the use of the n-word.) Informed of what is taking place at Cherry Hill High School East, Brian Stokes Mitchell, who was a Tony nominee for creating the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime and won the Tony as Best Actor for Kiss Me Kate, in addition to receiving The Isabelle Stevenson Award from the Tonys for his charitable work on behalf of The Actors Fund, spoke to Arts Integrity about the importance of Ragtime and its language.
“It needs to be acknowledged,” said Mitchell, “that whether the people who complained are African American or white, I understand why they would be upset, given the tenor of the times and what’s been in the news. If this was an African American family, we must acknowledge that these words at this time represent a very old wound that has been freshly scraped open. There is a renewed feeling among some people that they can say terrible things against ethnicities, against women, against the LGBTQ community. For those in communities that have been historically marginalized, there is now the real belief that there is a segment of the population that feels newly empowered to be offensive. I understand and acknowledge that.”
“But,” he continued, “that is what the show is about. It is about terribly ugly things that happen to people and how they surmount that. Our country has an ugly history with race.”
“To take the ugly language out of Ragtime is to sanitize it,” Mitchell declared, “and that does it a great disservice. People should be offended by those words. But it’s not done in a way that glorifies the people saying it. Rather, it allows the show to take people on a journey. It’s Coalhouse’s journey, it’s Sarah’s journey, it’s the journey of the 20th century and it’s still our journey today. The n-word is still thrown around without empathy.
“Ragtime is about how we get through ugliness, how we talk together, work together, get through it together. The show takes us to the next steps. That’s what our country needs to do.
[Edit, January 27: A 31-word quote from Mitchell that originally appeared here has been removed at his request, as he felt it was unclear when set down in writing, particularly after seeing it taken out of the entirety of the piece and used as his sole comment on the matter. He has offered a deeper clarification of his thoughts which appear at the end of this post.]
Mitchell observed that, regarding the school making alterations, “Changes are an infringement of copyright. It would be very unfortunate if because of this choice, the show can’t be done.”
Mitchell recalled a visit he made to Columbia High School in South Orange NJ in 2015, where he spoke with students about the show. Citing a question from the student who was playing the story’s most bigoted character, Willie Conklin, who expressed his discomfort at having to use the n-word, Mitchell said he reminded the student, “It’s not you saying it. It’s the character.”
In a follow-up letter to the school, Mitchell wrote:
I had been out of RAGTIME for a year when it played its last performance at the (then) Ford Theatre on 42nd Street. I wrote a letter to the company saying that although it was sad to see such a magnificent Broadway show close, the good thing was that RAGTME would no longer be the exclusive property of Broadway professionals. Now it would live where it really belonged – in the hearts, minds, hands and mouths of community theatres, college theatres and high school theatres EVERYWHERE.
Mitchell also recounted a six-page, single spaced letter he received from a young white man in Florida during the show’s original run. Saying that it was page after page about this man’s ordinary existence, leading Mitchell to wonder why the letter had been sent at all, he said that in the very last paragraph, the man that, after seeing Ragtime, “I realized I’d been a racist all my life and didn’t even know it.”
“You cannot have that experience if the language is toothless,” said Mitchell. “If you take that out, there’s nothing to have repercussions against. You have to take the ugly with the beautiful.”
While school officials have made a decision, it is not irrevocable. If there is the opportunity for further conversation—with the school, with the school board, with parents, with students, with the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association—Mitchell has offered to participate (and can be reached through the Arts Integrity Initiative). Because, he says, “They should do it [Ragtime, original language intact], be uncomfortable with it, and talk about it. One of the great things about this show is the discussion it engenders.”
Update 1/24 2 pm: To express support for an uncensored production of Ragtime at Cherry Hill High School East, click here to sign a petition.
Correction 1/24 3 pm: This post previously referred to the character of “Willie Conklin” as “Willie Calhoun.”
Addendum, 1/27 2:45 pm: Brian Stokes Mitchell has offered further thoughts and clarification on his remarks on the situation in Cherry Hill in writing, and they appear here in their entirety:
The original comments I made were in response to the High School’s desire to alter Ragtime’s script (specifically the excision of certain racial slurs) that could possibly lead to the loss of the right to perform the show due to copyright infringement issues. In addition, I was making a point about how the contextual use of those racial slurs sets up the trajectory of the characters in the show. It is the ugliness in Ragtime that gives the cathartic power to its tragically beautiful ending.
That being said, I want to acknowledge that I don’t know the specific issues that the parents who brought up the complaint are having. I also don’t know the opposing arguments of the parents who wish to do the show with the racial slurs intact or what the school district officials are facing. I do know that I am glad that this conversation has been initiated and engaged by the community and I am heartened to learn that the local NAACP is also involved in the process. I deeply respect and understand that there is concern about the brutality and offensive language in the show, particularly given the divisive nature of our present political climate. Although these are difficult times we are living in, I have faith that the conversations the Cherry Hill community is poised to have and their dedication to the welfare and development of their children will guide them on the best path to take.
What I can attest to is my personal experience with Ragtime and its cathartic and transformative power on an audience. I have experienced firsthand how Ragtime specifically (and I think art in general) has an amazing ability to heal by opening hearts and minds to the plight and concerns of fellow human beings whose lives and experiences might otherwise be marginalized, dismissed, or made not to matter.
Despite living in a time of overt racism, sexism, fear and xenophobia, the various characters of Ragtime each find their own individual sense of empowerment, understanding and interconnectedness. Together they confront something that is ugly, negative and dispiriting and ultimately transform it into something beautiful, positive and inspiring.
I think those are good lessons to teach and to learn.
I sincerely wish the community of Cherry Hill the greatest success as they grapple together with the very issues that we face together as a nation.