A High School Censoring Its Production of 'Ragtime' Is What We Don't Need Right Now

Chris Peterson

OnStage Editor-in-Chief

There is a scene in the musical, Ragtime, where the character Coalhouse Walker Jr. encounters a group of firemen who harass him because he's driving a nice car. The script reads: 

This ain't it. This is the Emerald Isle volunteer firehouse and this is a private road, nigger. Try turning around and going back where you came from.

I can see that I am not going to receive the courtesy of an answer from you gentlemen. Good day. 

(He tips his hat and drives off.)

Did you see that, Will? That impudent, cocky, king of the road smirk?

That, gentlemen, is a man to be pitied: A nigger who doesn't know he's a nigger. If he's smart, he won't pass this way again. 

This past fall I attended a production of the show in Stamford, CT. When these lines were spoken, there was an audible gasp in the audience. It also didn't hurt that the actor playing the role said it with just the right amount of hate without being over-the-top, where it would lose its impact. Every time he said it, it was a slap in the face. It simultaneously made the audience sympathize with Coalhouse and ashamed at the usage of that word.

Now, a New Jersey Borard of Education wants to make sure moments like these aren't as impactful with a high school's production of the show, by removing the word all together. 

In Cherry Hill, NJ, the local school board is moving towards censoring Cherry Hill High School's production of Ragtime, by changing or removing the word in the script. A complaint from a parent of a student involved in the show, also led the local chapter of the NAACP to support the Board of Education's decision. 

A meeting of the school board drew over a 100 people debating this issue and has led to a petition being drawn up to support the high school performers. 

The petition states: 

"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."

This is just the latest example of high school administrators censoring theatre productions. 

- Last year a CT high school cancelled its production of American Idiot due to its depiction of explicit language and scenes involving drugs and sex. Instead they produced Little Shop of Horrors which features drug use, domestic abuse and violence. Go figure. 

- In FL, a production of Blithe Spirit was canceled by the county board of education after community complaints that the play might “encourage exploration of witchcraft and the occult” and undermine students’ commitments to monogamous relationships. 

- Last year, a NY high school censored its production of The Producers by removing all swastikas from the "Springtime for Hitler" scene. 

- And just last week, a CA high school cancelled a production of No Exit due to parent complaints about its mature content and gay character. 

And this isn't the first time a high school has censored Ragtime. In 2015, a Minnesota high school used the word "Negro" as a substitute.

Look, I will never dictate how a black person should react to hearing that word, as I would never want someone to dictate how I should feel about hearing Asian derogatory words. I also understand where the NAACP and others are coming from. Remember, this is a musical written by an all-white creative team based on a book by a white author. 

However, what I feel is getting lost with this case and all similar situations, is context. The word is said 9 times in the show. It's never said casually nor celebratory. It's always said with hate and ignorance, therefore allowing a teachable moment and to showcase the abhorrent use of the word itself. 

By changing it or removing it all together, it softens the point the script is trying to make. I felt the same way about ABC's decision to bleep the word on the show Black-ish in the episode that talked about how the word is used.  

Decisions like these are not letting audiences be educated the way they need to be. We can't keep saying racism is wrong without showing what racism actually is.

I've always been a proponent that if a high school can't perform the show as written, then they shouldn't do it at all. And Cherry Hill High School approved the unaltered script months ago when the show was selected.

The other issue here is a violation of copyright law. As Howard Sherman correctly points out in his column, 

"What the district has failed to address in any of its statements, or in interviews with NJ.com or the Philadelphia Inquirer, is that by making any changes to the script, they are in violation of both copyright law and the licensing agreement for the show. It is not the purview of anyone to alter a dramatic work without the author or authors’ approval, whatever their rationale. If it is the intention of the school board to affirm the school’s stated position, their legal counsel would do well to inform them that the school is predicating its action on a legally untenable premise and could well result in the loss of the right to produce the show."

When referring to the Stamford, CT production, I wrote how Ragtime is a show that should be performed more than ever. It's themes of racism, xenophobia, sexism and violence are ever present in today's headlines. Shows like Ragtime can both entertain and enlighten. If we keep softening or removing these moments, the messages get lost. Which is exactly what some powers that be, want right now.