After Handling RAGTIME Controversy with Grace, NJ High School Recognized by Music Theatre International
The production raised concerns within the Cherry Hill community due to the inclusion in the script of racial slurs in telling an anti-racism story that is intended to evoke the evolving nature of what it means to be American, blending the stories of white, black, and Jewish characters.
In January, the Cherry Hill Public School system in Cherry Hill, New Jersey announced its plan to censor racially charged language for its drama group's upcoming 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 should be performed intact, with the potentially offensive words included as intended by the authors to depict the animosity between various ethnic groups as it existed in the early 20th century.
Censoring the language would have resulted in the rights to the show being withdrawn due to unauthorized edits. After much public input and passionate discussion with students, parents and alumni, the school board decided to support the students, and RAGTIME is proceeding at Cherry Hill High School East. Dr. Joseph Meloche, superintendent of schools in Cherry Hill, released a letter stating in part; "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....We will make it abundantly clear that we loathe the N-word, that we despise this most vile of words in our language."
Written by the award-winning composer/lyricist team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, noted playwright Terrence McNally, and based on E.L. Doctorow's distinguished novel, RAGTIME is a 1998 Tony winner and has been adapted for high school performers. Set in the volatile melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York, three distinctly American tales are woven together -- that of a stifled upper-class wife, a determined Jewish immigrant and a daring young Harlem musician -- united by courage, compassion and belief in the promise of the future. Together they confront history's timeless contradictions of wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair, and what it means to live in America.
"My late husband, E. L. Doctorow would, I am sure, applaud the courage and wisdom of the Cherry Hill High School students who have championed the cause of fidelity to art and truth," stated Helen Doctorow, widow of author E.L. Doctorow.
In a joint statement, the authors Mr. McNally, Ms. Ahrens and Mr. Flaherty said the following: "Ragtime is a story of our beloved country -- its glories, its follies and its gross wrongs. Doctorow's vision of America is human and humane. There are good people and bad people in Ragtime but above all there are people trying to do the right thing, no easy task in a country then, as now, still in the process of defining itself. Cherry Hill's thoughtful, respectful and emotional community discourse was a vision of our country at its very best. We applaud the community of Cherry Hill for voicing deeply-held concerns on all sides. We thank the educators for their willingness to listen, and to consider every argument. And bravo to the students for their articulate brilliance and commitment. The theater is a better place everyone who took part."
Music Theatre International's Courage In Theatre Award is bestowed to an organization that uses the power of the arts to affect positive change in their community in the face of adversity.
The Award is not given annually; instead, it is presented by MTI to an arts organization and its cast and production team that confronts challenges that threaten their ability to explore or express their artistic vision, even if it means taking an unpopular stance.
"We at Music Theatre International were impressed with the maturity, dedication and courage of the Cherry Hill East community not just in persevering with their production of Ragtime but in engaging in thoughtful, often emotional, debate as to the merits of proceeding with the show. In our licensing of a wide variety of musicals to schools around the world, we see many instances where the performers and audiences learn about culture, history and the arts through their productions. At a time where civil and respectful discourse can be difficult to find, we were particularly moved by the Cherry Hill community's in-depth consideration of the issues surrounding this production and ultimately by the decision to use the show as an instrument of education," said Drew Cohen, President of Music Theatre International."
Previous winners of the Courage in Theatre Award include the students and teachers of Green Valley High School in Las Vegas, Nevada for moving forward with their 2010 production of RENT SCHOOL EDITION, despite resistance from community members who objected to issues of sexuality and drug use in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.
In 2012, the Award was presented to the special needs students of New York City's The Spectrum School, P94M for writing and producing an original musical A POWERFUL DAY, depicting the performers' own life experiences as "differently abled" children.
Music Theatre International (MTI) is one of the world's leading theatrical licensing agencies, granting schools as well as amateur and professional theatres from around the world the rights to perform the largest selection of great musicals from Broadway and beyond. MTI works directly with the composers, lyricists and book writers of these shows to provide official scripts, musical materials and dynamic theatrical resources to over 70,000 theatrical organizations in the US and in over 60 countries worldwide.