It’s Theater Ethics vs. High School Ethics, And Incredibly, Both Win

New Jersey’s Cherry Hill School District announced last week that the planned Spring student production of the 1998 Broadway musical “Ragtime” would continue to be rehearsed and would proceed, despite the complaints of some parents. However, student actors would not use “nigger” and other racially-charged terms in the original script. They would be changed or eliminated, the District said.

A spokeswoman for the district, said at the time that officials had already been discussing the possibility of censoring the Cherry Hill High School East production when the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association and the NAACP offered their remedies: censorship, political correctness, and bye-bye free expression and thought. Of course this was their reaction. It is simple-minded, but typical of left-wing political correctness tyranny. It doesn’t matter what ideas are being conveyed, certain words cannot be used to convey them. Whenever possible, the heavy boot of government should crush the non-conforming expression. Also “of course,” lily-livered school administrators initially offered no opposition. Duck the controversy, and the real issues be damned. After all, it’s just a high school musical.

Unfortunately, there was the little issue of licensing agreements. “Ragtime” is a work of art, not that the NAACP cares, and artists have a right to control how their work is performed, even in Cherry Hill. The contract under which the school was allowed to produce the show specifies that the script and songs must be performed as written, no exceptions.

The National Coalition Against Censorship, the Dramatists Guild of America, and Arts Integrity Initiative wrote a smart letter urging the school officials “to reconsider and reverse [the] decision to censor “Ragtime”:

“Ragtime’s” use of racial slurs is an historically accurate and necessary aspect of a play that explores race relations in the early 1900s. Ragtime helps minors understand the brutalities of racism and the anger that has historically accumulated, partly through the use of racially offensive language. In contrast, censorship of such language ignores historical reality and presents a falsified, whitewashed view of race relations. Censoring the play will only perpetuate ignorance of our past. While we empathize with concerns about the emotionally disturbing effects of hearing or uttering racial slurs, we believe such concerns are to be resolved through educational means, not by censoring a renowned text. In our experience, similar concerns… have best been confronted through dialogue rather than censorship.”

Then the students, who had been rehearsing the show since before Christmas (no, real high school performers can’t prepare an elaborate show of professional quality in a few days, as “Glee” would have us believe), created a petition on Change.Org:

Months after the approval of the unaltered text of the musical Ragtime for production at Cherry Hill East, the Board of Education has felt the need to censor the show’s use of the “N-word”, as well as other racial slurs meant to convey the atrocities of the time. 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. Although we somewhat understand the reasoning behind this decision (and also understand that the Board wouldn’t have made it without the added pressure of several notable Civic Associations including the NAACP), we nonetheless ask that it be revoked, for the sake of Cherry Hill High School East’s continued artistic freedom and ability to present history as it happened rather than how we’d prefer to remember it.

Gee, maybe the students need to educate adults. “Highly displeased” is more diplomacy than the school administrators deserve. The key phrase is “months after the approval of the unaltered text of the musical Ragtime for production at Cherry Hill East.” I’m not certain that “Ragtime” is an appropriate show for a high school musical, but whether it is or not has to be settled irrevocably before a production is put into motion. My bet is that those who approved the show didn’t read it carefully, if at all. That is often the case, unfortunately. Then, when the tough language in the show was brought to their attention by people who could have made things uncomfortable for them, the administrator’s easiest way out of their self-made dilemma was to make the students pay for their lack of diligence and competence. After all, it’s only a show! Thus the complete lack of respect for and understanding of the value of the performing arts also played familiar roles.

Then, incredibly and against all odds, the system worked. Dr. Joseph Meloche, the superintendent of schools in Cherry Hill,  who had not reviewed or approved the show prior to its going into production, satisfied all parties by deciding that “Ragtime” would be performed as written (March 10-12 and 17-19 at the Cherry Hill East Auditorium!) but also decreed that the show would be referenced in classwork about racism in America during the early 20th Century, and that the performances would be accompanied by post-show discussions about the social and historical issues raised by the musical.

A high school musical being used to advance and enhance education? What an original concept! It’s so crazy, it might work!

Meloche wrote in part, in a letter released yesterday,

“…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 have been offered professional support in this endeavor from within the Cherry Hill Schools community and from professionals outside the community. …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.

Words matter. 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.

I would have written, “Words matter, ideas matter, art matters, context matters and history matters.”

But I’ll take it.

Sometimes all it takes is one wise, competent, responsible and clear-headed leader to avert an ethics train wreck. Fortunately, Cherry Hill had one on hand: Superintendent Meloche.

Bravo, Dr.


Sources: Playbill 1, 2;

17 thoughts on “It’s Theater Ethics vs. High School Ethics, And Incredibly, Both Win

  1. “I’m not certain that “Ragtime” is an appropriate show for a high school musical…”

    Almost any show, except for maybe Mary Poppins, will have something that someone will find objectionable for a high school musical. West Side Story — different racism, gang violence, sexual assault, stupid cops. South Pacific — again, different racism. Oklahoma — fantasy sexual assault. Guys and Dolls — illegal gambling. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers — kidnapping. Damn Yankees — Satan. The Sound of Music — Nazis AND Nuns! Pippin — where can I begin?!

    I could go on, but I’m having too much fun.

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