On January 20, the Cherry Hill Public School system in New Jersey announced their intent to censor racially charged language for their upcoming drama group’s production of the musical Ragtime at Cherry Hill High School East. The announcement prompted a vocal response from advocates on both sides of the issue: those who felt the language in the play was unacceptable under any circumstances, and those who believed that the play must be performed intact, with the potentially offensive words used to serve the work’s overall message of American diversity and inclusion.
On Tuesday, January 24, there were two hours and 40 minutes of public comment at a Board of Education meeting on the issue. Following that meeting, a private discussion was convened in Cherry Hill for a variety of stakeholders on all sides of the topic, which lasted more than two hours.
This afternoon, Dr. Joseph Meloche, superintendent of schools in Cherry Hill, released a letter stating that Ragtime would be produced as written, on its original schedule, with curricular enhancements implemented in the weeks leading up to the performance. What follows is an extended excerpt from that letter:
In coming to a decision, our focus remains on our students, on their safety and their development – which has always been and always will remain our top priority. Education must take place in a safe way, in a safe environment. The final decision regarding Ragtime was not made based on a vote. We do not deem any individual or group who voiced an opinion in the process as wrong. Nor is any person or group more valuable than another. We are greatly appreciative of all who have joined the hours of discussion, and for the respectful manner in which most conducted themselves.
These are tumultuous, difficult times. We believe that while these difficult times provide challenges in our educational community, they also provide an opportunity and an obligation to educate. We believe we can educate using difficult subject matter presented in a safe, sensitive way. To that end, Cherry Hill High School East will present Ragtime as written. The school community will be supported by curriculum and conversation leading up to and continuing through the show’s performance dates and beyond. The curriculum additions will allow all of our students to learn from the production without feeling threatened or disenfranchised. We will present resources and conversation regarding the production at each performance. We will make it abundantly clear that we loathe the N-word, that we despise this most vile of words in our language. We have been offered professional support in this endeavor from within the Cherry Hill Schools community and from professionals outside the community. We will be availing ourselves of those resources from now through the performance schedule of Ragtime at Cherry Hill High School east – opening on March 10, 2017 and closing on March 19, 2017 – and into the future.
We look forward to continued conversations with the stakeholders who have generously and respectfully offered their time and perspective to this process. We also look forward to our community treating each other with kindness and respect moving forward.
There is much work to be done. Please, join us in supporting our children – all of our children – in moving forward. Be a positive voice, be part of a positive change.
Joseph N. Meloche, Ed.D.
Arts Integrity’s prior reporting on this issue, including statements from Brian Stokes Mitchell, who created the role of Coalhouse Waker Jr. in the original production of Ragtime, can be found here.