After deliberating among a variety of stakeholders, Cherry Hill East will perform the musical Ragtime in its original form. Actor Brian Stokes Mitchell will visit the high school as part of education around it.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 27, 2017
Despite touching off intergenerational reactions for its historically accurate but racially charged content, the musical Ragtime will be performed in its original form by students from Cherry Hill High School East.
The choice to perform the award-winning musical, which includes use of ethnic slurs in its portrayal of the struggles of early 20th-century Americans, drew criticism from the NAACP and the Cherry Hill African-American Civic Association (CHAACA).
At a three-hour school board meeting Tuesday, representatives from both the production and the community at large weighed in on the uncomfortable history of race in the township as well as the value of the chance to perform difficult art within it.
After meeting with members from those groups as well as from the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Cherry Hill Superintendent Joseph Meloche said the district will proceed with the play in its licensed, unedited form. The district will support that performance with classroom and community education, audience conversation and disclaimers, and signage notifying observers about the content of the show.
“I’m incredibly grateful that the conversation has taken place during the course of the last two weeks,” Meloche said. “I regret that it did not take place months in advance.”
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, “the life experiences that were shared in that room, even though we live within miles of each other, are so dramatically different,” he said. It was a reminder to the district that “we have the opportunity to constantly tell our story.
“The way that information flows has changed over the last few years,” Meloche said. “We need to own that and realize that and see that. We have to move forward from where we are. We could have done lots. We will do even more.”
As a result of events unfolding as they did, Meloche said the district will “apply curricular standards”—which include considerations of groups’ representation, underrepresentation, and characterization, cost and availability of materials and their age-appropriateness—in selecting future productions, plus a formalized sign-off process to allow traceability of its decision-making.
“There will be a formal procedure, documentation that we will collect and maintain, and [we will] begin to build a book of what is there,” Meloche said.
In addition to curricular review, the district will provide specific lessons about the themes of Ragtime in its English and history classes. Howard Sherman of the Arts Integrity Initiative has provided information about how other groups have approached the show, which Meloche said will inform the work Cherry Hill East does.
Tony Award-winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, who originated the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. on Broadway, has committed to visiting the district before the performance to work with the students in the cast and crew. Mitchell has apparently consented to allowing the district “to film him and use his words and his image” in future education around the show, Meloche said.
Before every performance of the show, classmates Curtis Middleton and Ezra Nugiel, who portray Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Willie Conklin in the show, will address the audience “to explain who they are, that they are high-school students playing roles on a stage and using language that they do not support or endorse or like,” Meloche said.
At the end of every performance, the cast will remind the audience that Ragtime is a period piece reflecting social and cultural behaviors that are outdated and prejudices that must not be tolerated.
Signage will be displayed at the ticketing booth with reminders “that there are themes in the show that are challenging and language that is harsh,” Meloche said.
Community groups including CHAACA, NAACP, ADL, and JCRC will be invited to speak to the cast and crew as well as to provide cultural materials or staff lobby tables during performances. After both matinee performances and in-school performances for the student body, the cast and crew of Ragtime will host a 45-minute talkback session with the audience; Meloche said cultural groups from the school and greater community are invited to send their representatives to these as well.
“Each organization has committed their support to our children,” Meloche said. “Our children need to hear.”
While reiterating emphatically his personal disgust for the language of bigotry, Meloche said he will accept responsibility for the work being shown in its full form, and that the decision to do so was made by the district, not the school board.
“I am thankful that the discussion has taken place within the walls of the school district,” he said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do in public schools is question; is push. I don’t want anyone to be vilified for raising a question.”
After the run of the show concludes, Meloche said the district sees itself as having a significant role in continuing formalized community conversations around race, equity, and inclusion.
“We will re-formalize that structure to take advantage of the supports we have; to take advantage of the community we have,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure everybody feels included, and there’s an incredible amount of work to be done. March 19, the show ends; our work will not end.
“Unfortunately, racism exists,” he said. “We will continue to work forward. It requires education. These are our kids, this is our community.”
Performing challenging work
Despite the controversy and his own personal belief that the script could be edited and still maintain its emotional impact, the superintendent said the decision to allow for the full integrity of the work respects the judgment of its author, playwright Terrance McNally, while giving the student actors the opportunity to take on challenging material with support and education.
“It’s the fine line we walk working with children of this age,” Meloche said. “Part of that is our responsibility to support them. There’s lots of things that professionals do that we do not do.
“How far do you want to push?” he continued. “How far do you want to go? We don’t want to need to be able to say ‘this yes, this no,’ and start to break things apart. The kids absolutely have a perspective, and the kids absolutely learn from adults.”
Although the play is a community presentation, Meloche said he believes his first responsibility is to the school, and “the true controlled environment [that] is within the classroom.
“What’s our responsibility as a school district is to our children here,” he said. “That debate is still going to rage. Can I make a difference here? I can for these kids.
“The discussion has already been forced,” Meloche said. “Now I can allow it happen in a safe way.”
David Snyder, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, thanked the school, CHAACA, and the NAACP for being included in the conversation (Ragtime includes epithets towards Jewish as well as black Americans). Snyder said that the school community “is the number one community of focus” at issue.
“We certainly understand why the administration has decided to move forward, and appreciate the continuing education opportunity around language, labels; around all faiths, all religions,” he said. “We recognize the use of certain terms in a historical context as an educational opportunity for discussions beyond the performance and appreciate the opportunities for those involved to provide additional support.”
Calls to the NAACP Camden County East chapter were not immediately returned. CHAACA released the following preliminary statement late Friday evening:
As many of you know, the Cherry Hill African-American Civic Association has been very vocal about the choice of the play Ragtime by East’s Drama Department and its decision to select a play which uses the n-word. CHAACA has and still maintains its position that the n-word should not be used in the play. However, we are cognizant that the African-American children at East cannot be left with just, “The play is not going to happen!”
Sustainable and lasting changes must be made to the system that allows staff to make decisions to put on a play that uses inflammatory statements with little regard to the effect it may have on ethnic minorities, specifically the African-American community. A process should have been planned and implemented that would educate African-American children, ALL children, the faculty, and Cherry Hill’s community as a whole about the harm that the n-word has historically inflicted, the uncomfortable nature of the n-word to the African American population, the history of African-Americans and their contributions to this great nation of ours. The process would have served to empower all students, staff and the community to take a stand against racism and discrimination in all forms.
Our counsel was not sought, and our voices continue to be minimized. Cherry Hill African-American Civic Association will ensure that our children’s voices will no longer be ignored and our history will be infused in all aspects of Cherry Hill’s curriculum via the Amistad Mandate from the State of New Jersey. We are also expecting that cultural proficiency will be implemented as an ongoing and integral part of the curricula, and infused as part of a professional development program for all staff; teachers, non-certified administrators, and Board members.
The omission of cultural proficiency as a part of professional development has brought us to this current position as a district. Cultural proficiency would have ensured that the staff, students and Board members recognize that if reflection, empathy, and awareness of other cultures, religions, and races were known and celebrated, they would have been equipped to handle this present dilemma. The dialogue that has begun as a result of this decision is a starting point for the entire community
CHACCA REQUESTS THE FOLLOWING:
- Develop policy that no longer allows theater department autonomy to select their plays. Future plays must go through a process.
- Hire Barbara-Moore Williams, Consultant Cultural Proficiency Committee on a long-term basis
- Implement the Amistad Curriculum
- Re-establish Minority Achievement Committee
- Address guidance issues and concerns
- Infusing African-American history in all aspects of the curriculum, including Math, Science and the Arts
Ragtime will be performed in the Cherry Hill High School East auditorium at 7:30 p.m. March 10, 11, 17, and 18, and at 2 p.m. March 12 and 19 with a post-performance audience talkback. Tickets are $14 and are available at chetheatre.com or by calling 856-424-2222 x2019.
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