Early January 2017, New Jersey’s Cherry Hill High School came under fire for their decision to censor their production of Ragtime. In response to parents and civil rights groups raising concerns, the school decided to censor the musical’s original lyrics. The main target of censorship, the show’s use of the word “nigger,” or as the non-Black community appropriately labels it, the “n-word.”
This, amongst other ethnic slurs, sits at the very soul of Ragtime. The musical, based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, begins by depicting a world defined by segregation between white, Eastern European immigrant, and Black communities. Repercussions of that deliberate racial divide, namely a white man calling a Black man a “nigger,” then disrupt this world, further spiralling things out of control.
This show’s conflict is rooted in the repugnance of this word and Cherry Hill High School wanted to censor it. Censoring Ragtime of its racism and racial commentary is like making The Book of Mormon church-friendly. Many agreed, including 1,200 students, community members, artists, and original Broadway cast member Brian Stokes Mitchell.
Image: Catherine Ashmore
“Our country has an ugly history with race,” Mitchell said of the controversy. “To take the ugly language out of Ragtime is to sanitize it and that does it a great disservice.”
Despite threats to cancel the musical if they could not censor it, the New Jersey high school agreed to continue the production with the original book and lyrics, by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty.
Mitchell visited the school on March 3rd to mentor the students, prior to their March 10th opening, in conjunction with the Camden County East NAACP. They discussed topics ranging from the power of language to the show’s racial themes. Mitchell, while agreeing to participate in a talkback with the cast after a show, also performed “Make Them Hear You,” his big number from the musical.
To top it all off, he thanked the school with a video on Facebook.
We have to give our own thanks to Broadway’s finest. Brian Stokes Mitchell constantly uses his platform to educate and uplift young artists. His integrity and kindness precede him and his selflessness is consistent. This saga ends with a Tony winner’s gratitude and Cherry Hill taking a bow.