At a packed meeting, members of the Cherry Hill township and school community asked the district school board to weigh the impact of local history and the artistic integrity of its theater department.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 25, 2017
Despite being a community that today reflects the measures of social progress that have come in the years since the Civil Rights Era, Cherry Hill has a complicated history of racial politics.
Wounds from a time when neighborhood integration was a radical notion to some can take very little prompting to surface.
Belying the struggles of those days, however, a younger generation of students in the community is farther removed from the abuses its forebears suffered; at once, that distance is a measure of the victories their parents and grandparents won, and a disconnect that prevents the older folks from seeing things the same way their descendants do.
This divide was fully on display Tuesday night, as members of the broader township residential and school community packed the tiny meeting room at Estelle Malberg School for a meeting of the Cherry Hill Board of Education.
The district had moved earlier this month to censor the Cherry Hill High School East production of Ragtime, a Tony Award-winning musical about the racial and class divides in early 20th-century America, because its book includes racial and ethnic slurs, including the words “nigger” and “kike.” Parent complaints led to a sit-down with community groups and the eventual decision to restrict the content of the production, as reported by Philly.com last week.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Cherry Hill Superintendent of Schools Joseph Meloche reinforced the board’s decision pushing for censorship of the play, citing the “continuity of hate and disgust” surrounding “the N-word.”
“I do not believe that there’s another word in the English language that’s been used to inflict as much pain,” Meloche said. “The word exists; I wish it did not. I wish that it was not used in our schools and our community and our world, but it is. Giving it voice continues to breathe life into it.”
Meloche said the board is in contact with Ragtime licensing group, Music Theatre International (MTI), to discuss alternative arrangements. MTI must approve any alterations to its licensed material, and “without approval we’re at a crossroads,” he said. The company provides three versions of the show: the original Broadway arrangement, a scaled-down “version 2” for smaller orchestras, and a student version of the show, which MTI only describes as being “slightly rearranged for student voices.”
As he spoke about creating “an environment that allows for discourse, discussion, debate, and challenge,” Meloche referred to the district’s history of confronting difficult curriculum with the support of the community. That legacy included allowing the theater program to tackle productions with controversial content, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Cabaret, which feature ethnic slurs and Nazism, respectively.
In the mid-1990s, when Cherry Hill grappled with the impact of teaching Huckleberry Finn, the district worked with PBS and the Cherry Hill African-American Civic Association (CHAACA) to develop classroom education in which to couch the language and tenor of the novel.
‘You can’t call me the N-word and tell me it’s art’
Some members of the community returned to that argument in their support of the board’s decision to censor the play.
Cherry Hill resident Pat McCargo, who has held a leadership position with CHAACA for years, and who was part of the discussion that led to the development of the PBS curriculum, said the district needed to “get the work done first.
“Work has to be done in the classrooms prior to the play,” she said. “Take a look inside. It’s not just East. Are you teaching the community?”
“Content matters,” said Voorhees resident Carey Savage, Vice-President of the NAACP Camden County East Chapter. “Words do matter. We all have limits.
“I and we don’t need to be refreshed” on the impact of racial slurs, Savage said. “I’m 67 years old. You can’t call me the N-word and tell me it’s art. I’ve been through that.”
NAACP Camden County President Lloyd Henderson said the board was doing the right thing by refusing to include “derogatory and racially divisive” language in the production. Failing to make those changes to the script is waiting for “a teachable moment that will never come,” Henderson said.
“We still believe that most if not all who have a clear context of the use of that word support your decision,” he said.
Former Camden City mayoral candidate Amir Khan, who once tried to open a charter school in Cherry Hill, said that when his parents purchased their Jamaica Drive home in the township from Frankie Avalon, the singer later told his family he’d had to get permission from the other residents of the development to sell it to a black family.
Khan recalled other instances of intimidation during the years he spent in the community, including finding bullet holes in the plate glass window of the house and his white friend’s car being vandalized with the words “Nigger Lover” for giving him a ride home after sporting events.
“I heard that word again and again,” Khan said.
Khan, whose brother Ricardo founded the Tony-Award-winning Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, said the Broadway version of the play is “not for high-school kids,” although he later added that Ricardo Khan supports keeping the controversial language in the Cherry Hill East production.
CHAACA Second Vice-President Danny Elmore, who also worked on the PBS curriculum, said that collaboration with PBS was the last time he can recall seeing so much of the community convened around the issues of race and education.
“When we talked about Huck Finn, we agreed at that point that we didn’t want to censor Huck Finn, but we wanted students to be educated before they went into a classroom and heard these words that are so divisive,” Elmore said.
“When you put on a play, when you use a book, it is important that all sides get to hear how that term affects other people,” he said. “This is an educational process in itself just being here. Had this occurred before the play was on, I don’t think we would have had a problem with it.
“[Ragtime] is very powerful in that is discourages people from being prejudiced,” Elmore continued. “The play is a great vehicle. The real question is, those people who will go to the play and be offended, are we taking care of those people and their students and having seminars afterward?
“What I hear from the students is that we as a community really do need to come to and to make decisions together,” he said. “We don’t hear these kinds of discussions in our classrooms now. We don’t hear these discussions that we need to as a community come together to hear both sides of these issues.”
‘A lesson in humanity’
Alumni and alumna of the Cherry Hill East theater program argued that compromising the integrity of the original work robs the audience of the opportunity to struggle with challenging artistic material as much as it robs the teens from the struggle of performing it.
Aliyah Bowles, a 2007 graduate of East who has gone on to a professional acting career that included a 2008 production of Ragtime, said the show was one of the seminal experiences of her life.
“Art just isn’t a form of entertainment,” Bowles said. “It is a lesson in humanity. High-school students need to live in a world that understands the power of words.”
Bowles’ mother, Deborah, who co-chaired the CHAACA achievement committee with Pat McCargo for a decade and raised two children in the township school system, said she too “come[s] from an era where every interaction with the word ‘nigger’ was a harmful one,” but added that “eliminating the word from Ragtime is an attempt to change history.
“The show should go on uncensored,” Deborah Bowles said. “If the district provides workshops, play discussions… people can be enlightened. How wonderful that artists can be at the leading edge of this conversation!”
Cherry Hill East student Cedric Middleton, who plays Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the male lead in Ragtime, characterized the emotional conflict of portraying a victim of oppression while having grown up in a community in which he “never once” personally felt “attacked or segregated because of my skin color.”
While acknowledging the progress earned by prior generations, Middleton argued that he and his classmates should be able to perform the musical with its script intact so that Civil Rights activists can feel “a sense of pride knowing their struggle was not in vain.
“The audience acknowledges that even in the present day there is much to be done,” he said. “Ragtime is about how we get through such ugliness.”
Middleton also said that since the show was selected in August 2016, its director, Cherry Hill High School East English teacher Tom Weaver, has discussed its content with the cast and crew. While acknowledging that that education may not have made it to the broader community, “everyone in the department understood the point of the show,” Middleton said.
Ezra Nugiel, who must deliver the racist dialogue that his character uses in the show, fought back tears as he pleaded with the board to reconsider its decision.
“I don’t say it happily, but I know that I have to,” Nugiel said. “We need to hear these words to not let history repeat itself.”
Nugiel’s classmate, All South Jersey clarinetist Sung Kwang Oh, told the board that the E.L. Doctorow novel from which Ragtime was adapted was influenced by a tale that dates back to feudal days, and that sanitizing its language would undermine the universality of the struggles it depicts.
“The story of injustice is ingrained in human history,” Oh said.
“In stories, you don’t take the nasty parts out because they complete the story. It’s the struggle that makes the success even more admirable.
“We are in a better society today not because we were destined to be in this society but because the people before us struggled,” he said.
“You’re altering history. You’re dismissing the harsh words that thousands of minorities heard.”
Senior Justin Accardi said the board’s interference challenged the general perception among the student body to experience the work as it was originally intended while threatening its “continued artistic freedom to present history as it happened.
“MTI has a history of blacklisting high schools that alter the texts of their scripts,” Accardi said. “This decision could lead to the censorship of other books.”
He also cited a public comment from actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, who originated the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. on Broadway, that the school should preserve the work in its entirety.
“It needs to be acknowledged 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,” Mitchell told The Arts Integrity Initiative. “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.”
“Ragtime is about how we get through ugliness, how we talk together, work together, get through it together,” Mitchell said. “The show takes us to the next steps. That’s what our country needs to do. See this show, acknowledge the language, but don’t censor it. This show results in catharsis because of what it says, and what the audience of all kinds of people experience together.”
Later in the meeting, Accardi’s mother, Selena, who had been corresponding with Mitchell’s representatives since his remarks, said the actor was willing “to come down and talk to all of us” about the instructive value of the show and its language. Mitchell has done so before.
“Are you willing to do the work to do that?” she challenged the board. “Use this opportunity.”
‘We need to be able to have these discussions’
Ryk Lewis, who directs the Fusion Performing Arts Center in the Voorhees Town Center, implored the board to both allow the show to proceed in its original form while leveraging members of the community to help couch its message in the context of local history.
“I really do understand both sides of this equation,” Lewis said.
“There are people in this room who were born before there was a nationwide right for black people to vote… who don’t have a real understanding of what Jim Crow was. There are contemporaries who think that black folk didn’t have it all that bad.”
Using Ragtime to educate a new generation of students on the social conditions it describes offers a singular opportunity for education that involves “people who have struggled and walked and gone through the fight to have discourse,” he said.
“We need to be able to have these discussions and understand how it lands and why it lands, and know it’s not some far-off thing because there are still things that are happening today,” Lewis said. “Allow this show to be presented… surrounded and encased in education for the cast and education for the community.”
Cherry Hill resident Bill McCargo, who has served the community as a police officer, fire chief, school board member, and CHAACA past president, said the outpouring of testimonials reflected the complexity of the issue in the community.
“We’re all saying the same thing,” McCargo said. “It’s how we get the message across.”
As the meeting stretched into its third hour, resident Nancy Walker testified with great temerity that she had contacted the NAACP about the show, which led to the opposition that resulted in the BOE censorship. Walker, whose uncle, Wyatt Tee Walker, organized the Birmingham, Alabama Children’s Crusade in 1963, said that her family was close enough to the Civil Rights movement to bear the continued weight of its responsibilities.
Walker feared that her children, who are in the show’s technical crew, would face social repercussions in the school community for her decision.
“Don’t sneer at my sons because I wrote that letter,” Walker said.
Later, Walker said she believed the issues that her actions had raised had opened the door for the deeper community discussion that took place.
“The students are admirably passionate,” she said, praising their desires for the show to offer “teachable moments.” Walker added that she hoped the meeting would serve as “the beginning of the teachable moment that I hope will come from this.”
Afterwards, Meloche said the board would have to consider the best way to proceed. He praised the community for “a great discussion,” and said the students accounted themselves very well.
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