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.
“I’m proud as can be of my Black ancestry.” Carol Channing Passes Away at 97
Legendary Broadway star Carol Channing has passed away at the age of 97. Mostly known for originating the role of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, her raspy voice was distinct and unmistakable.
Channing was born in Seattle and found her love of theatre at a young age due to passing out copies of The Christian Science Monitor in front of performance spaces. When it came time for her to go off to college, her mother revealed to her a family secret. She was partially Black. Her paternal grandmother was listed as ‘colored’ on her birth certificate making her father, George Channing, a Black German American. Her mother told her because she would be on her own now and didn’t want her to be surprised if “she had a Black baby.”
I know it’s true the moment I sing and dance. I’m proud as can be of [my black ancestry]. It’s one of the great strains in show business. I’m so grateful. My father was a very dignified man and as white as I am. My [paternal] grandparents were Nordic German, so apparently I [too] took after them [in appearance]
Channing went on to major in drama at Bennington College in Vermont but left school her junior year because of a mention in the New Yorker magazine. However, it was four years until she found another acting gig. She made her stage debut in “Never Take No for an Answer” and was an understudy in “Let’s Face It” but it was her role in the Broadway musical “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” in 1949 that made her a star.
In 1964 Channing stole all of our hearts as Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello Dolly!” and we never wanted her to go away again. It was the role that solidified and defined her as a Broadway staple. This lead to her starring in the movie musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” as Muzzy Van Hossmere in 1967. She was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her role.
Channing was a rightfully a Broadway icon and beloved by all. She won several lifetime achievement awards and was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981. Her smile remained bright, and she worked well into her 90’s.
Rest In Peace Carol Channing!
Watch video of her below accepting her Tony Award and exceptional performance by the All-Black cast of Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey.
There’s No One Like Ntozake Shange, Wild Beauties
In this multi-part series, Broadway Black interviews Poet Ntozake Shange.
The Legendary Blue Note Jazz Club located in NYC’s Greenwich Village was buzzing in anticipation of Ntozake Shange’s performance of Wild Beauties. Before the start of the show, I interview Shange’s friends, family, and long time fans, asking them “what they were most looking forward to?”
Although hard to believe, it has been over 40 years since the creation of Shange’s seminal work for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Blue Note audience member’s stories span decades; set in New York City, The Bay Area and every town or city in between.
They recall the moments they felt visible in her poetry. They blush as they confess they performed in local productions of For colored girls as lady in red, lady in green or other women in the play. They smile reciting lines from sechita, pyramid and “no more love poems #1. #2, #3 & #4.” They are nostalgic as they tell me about seeing Shange’s work on and off Broadway. They compare the play to the 1982 PBS American Playhouse production, to the Tyler Perry Film with strong opinions about each iteration. Each felt ownership and protective of Shange’s work. Each came to see the artist whose work changed their lives.
At the end of their testimony, there is a pause. Their unending love for Shange is coupled with their concerns for her. I disclose I am writing about the performance and as a result, many ask me with caution in their eyes, about her health.
Is she healthy (enough to do this)? Is she too old to do this? Will this be her last performance?
These questions are caring and well meaning yet, problematic; heavily anchored in western cosmologies about health and our fears of a changing body. I graciously shift the conversation, encouraging them to relax and enjoy the show. As a journalist, I understand it is important to address these curiosities as it relates to Shange’s most recent performance and the legacy of her work.
I had the pleasure to sit with Shange the morning of her Blue Note performance. She candidly discusses her health, her body and her excitement to be performing again since recovering from stroke related medical complications over the last decade. It’s no secret that stroke rehabilitation has been an important part of recovery, as she shared the successes and setbacks on her journey towards wellness. “I went through a period where I didn’t write. I didn’t perform. I concentrated on my physical rehabilitation. I had to learn how to hold things, how to sit up how to stand.”
She is thrilled with the progress she continues to make in rehab. Shange who is a gorgeous 68-year-old woman glows when she talks about dancing. She approaches her physical therapy as if it were a movement workshop often asking her cab drivers to play Latin music and dances in the back seat as she rides.
In our conversation, she strikes me as a fiercely independent woman. She is a Black artist who takes pride in the craft of her poetry. Shange reluctantly depends on speech recognition software to write poetry as the software seeks to not only auto correct but colonize the beauty of black phraseology that is the essence of her work.
Her writing uses a Black talk that dances like jazz telling stories of the diaspora. Her work is the embodiment of Blackness moving in the air to manifest emotion, uniquely her own and there is no one on earth who can replicate. Software certainly can’t do what Shange can do and this is a source of her frustration.
Shange tells me Maya Angelou sent her children’s books to read as she regained her speech. She tells me about times when walking, moving and certainly dancing was impossible. How getting a typewriter helped her feel more connected to her work. She still has poems to write and desires this connection to her words.
She shares that rehearsals are going well and how she loves working with musicians William “Spaceman” Patterson, Michael Raye and Patmore Lewis. She is ecstatic to be back on stage in front of audiences. This is the conversation I am recalling in my mind as audience members whisper to me about her health. This is the reason I decline to speculate, I figure Shange would do what Shange came to do. Perform poems. Dance. Take Names.
The return to the stage at Blue Note feels like a homecoming for Shange. She explains ” I began working in night clubs with musicians reading my poetry. That is how for colored girls started. I feel like it’s the beginning again.”
At the start of the night, the announcer welcomes the audience to Blue Note, painfully mispronouncing her name. The audience rumbled, rolling their eyes in her defense while yelling “Its N-to-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-gay. Her name is N-to-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-ga!” said many voices from neighboring tables.
When the musicians William “Spaceman” Patterson & Michael Raye take the stage the audience tosses their annoyance aside and settles in for the show. Shange soon followed. The audience gives a standing ovation before she utters a word.
She came out swinging. Normally Shange likes to ease audiences into her work offering safety at the start of her sets but she had something to say about PRIDE. Her opening poem, ODE TO ORLANDO is about the Orlando Night Club Tragedy. In June 2016, 49 people were killed and 58 wounded due to hate a crime inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Shange lyrically takes audiences to the inside of Pulse nightclub where the black and brown queer bodies gather to celebrate Pride month. Her poem collages stories of her daughter who could’ve been there but wasn’t there. This poem is timely and tender, embracing the spirit of Pride season while not forgetting the need for LGBTQ liberation all year around.
She shares a poem titled LOOSENING STRINGS, OR GIVE ME AN “A”. Shange, a self-described Black girl who grew up listening to “white boys who sang weird harmonies that all sound the same” on the radio states “Yes, Eric Clapton made me want to have a child named Layla.” She has a sense of humor. The audience laughs in tune with her confessions.
Shange like a bandleader of a jazz orchestra moves us through experiences that are terrifying and soft. In THERE ARE NO MARKERS, she reminds us of the brutal reality of Blackness in America. She draws the audience into her world with I had five nose rings.
I had five nose rings
a gold circle
a silver circle
& a half moon
without these I am unarmed
not ready for arbitrary violence
There is no question that Shange captivates audiences. Her poetry, her presence her aura is magnetic. We have heard her words in cafes in local theaters, on Broadway and in Hollywood performed by some of the greatest Black actresses of all time, yet there is nothing like hearing Shange perform her own work. She is beautiful and particular. It is this closeness with her, her words, her journey that audiences are still yearning for 40 years after for colored girls took Broadway by storm at the Booth Theatre in NYC.
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