NJ school board to discuss censoring student production of ‘Ragtime’
CHERRY HILL — A high school presentation of the racially charged musical "Ragtime" will be discussed by a South Jersey board of education meeting on Tuesday.
The Cherry Hill High School East Drama Department is scheduled in March to perform the show set in the decades before the outbreak of World War I.
The choice of musical has prompted debate about just how the play, which includes frequent use of a racial slur, should be presented: in an unaltered form, an edited form or not at all.
Camden County East NAACP president Lloyd D. Henderson, on the Cherry Hill United Facebook page, called it an "ill-advised decision" to allow "Ragtime" to be performed and encouraged members to attend the meeting to express their opposition.
"Parents from the community have voiced their objections to this public sanctioned racially derogatory use of the N-Word disguised as 'literary freedom,'" Henderson wrote.
Henderson did not return a message from New Jersey 101.5.
In a statement, the Cherry Hill Board of Education said the school met with representatives from the East staff and the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association and "confirmed the decision to remove offensive language from the enacted script."
Students will also participate in "learning activities" to further discuss racism.
"The musical is considered a historical fiction due to the interaction of fictional characters with historical figures from the times" and students will approach the production from a "learning disposition," the district said.
The high school has less than 200 black students in an enrollment of 1,400, according to 2015 data.
Another group called Troupe 213 has collected over 1,000 signatures in a Change.org petition asking that the originally approved unaltered version be presented.
"For several reasons, including a potential loss in sympathy for the show's oppressed characters, the robbing of integrity and artistic license for those involved in performing the show, and the possible setting of a precedent that would allow other important artistic works in East's curriculum to be censored, the general student body involved in the production of Ragtime is highly displeased with this decision, and requests that it be overturned."
School district spokeswoman Barbara Wilson said that the matter is not formally on the agenda for Tuesday night's meeting and can be brought up during the public discussion part of the meeting. Each person will be allowed three minutes to speak. No vote will be taken by the board.
"The statement that was released by the district on how 'Ragtime' is going to be handled was a pretty firm statement. This is not policy, it's not procedure, it's not something that's being voted on by the board. Any comments would be taken under advisement but right now we're not in a formal process of making some kind of policy or procedure regarding that particular production."
New Jersey 101.5 news anchor Patrick Lavery, who had several professional credits as a child actor in the mid- to late ’90s, worked on the original production of “Ragtime” as it was transferring to Broadway in 1997.
“It is a period piece (beginning in roughly 1906), so as a result, many words that we consider unprintable a century later were written into the script and lyrics in order to convey what were actually the social norms of that time,” Lavery said. “The N-word stands out – and make no mistake, it is used heavily – but characters also make derogatory references to Jews and people of German, Irish, and Polish descent, along with other offensive names for African Americans. These words would make anyone blush nowadays, be they an administrator, teacher, student, parent, or someone like me who first read the script at age 10.”
The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the Malberg Administration Building.
Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com
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