Cherry Hill Public Schools to allow “Ragtime” to be performed as written

The school district announced on Friday afternoon the Cherry Hill High School East spring musical, “Ragtime,” would be performed as written, a week after previously saying the district would not perform the show with the N-word included.

The show ”Ragtime” will go on at Cherry Hill High School East this March.

One week after announcing “Ragtime” would not be performed with the N-word at Cherry Hill East, school officials reversed their decision on Friday afternoon. The district announced “Ragtime” would be performed uncensored at the high school this spring.

Superintendent Joe Meloche said the district will use the show and its use of the N-word as part of the vehicle for furthering the discussion of racism and equality in the community. Signs will be posted at the Cherry Hill East box office informing ticket buyers about the content of the show. Students performing as Colehouse Walker Jr. and Willie Conklin will read a short statement prior to the show talking about how the language of the show was the language spoken at the time and how the use of racial slurs should not be tolerated. A similar statement will be read at the conclusion of the performance.

Meloche said the reversed decision does not change his stance on the N-word.

“I despise, I loathe, the N-word,” he said. “I don’t think it should be used ever. It’s a terrible word.”

Part one of the district’s statement on “Ragtime” from Jan. 27.

Set in the early 20th century, “Ragtime” focuses on three families from different ethnic backgrounds. The show highlights racial tensions and diversity issues occurring during the time.

The district’s decision came three days following a Cherry Hill Board of Education meeting where more than 100 students, parents and community members offered their opinions for and against the district’s original decision. Many students from the “Ragtime” cast asked Cherry Hill school officials to reverse their decision, while a number of representative from the Camden County East NAACP and the Cherry Hill African American Civic Association applauded the district for its decision.

Part two of the district’s statement on “Ragtime” from Jan. 27.

On Thursday, Meloche met with representatives from the NAACP, CHAACA, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League about the issue.

Meloche said the organizations who attended Thursday’s stakeholders meeting have pledged to support the show. The organizations and the culture clubs at Cherry Hill East will have displays set up in the hallways outside of the auditorium at every performance of the show to address the topic of racism and equality.

The district is also expected to receive support from Broadway. Meloche said numerous people involved with the Broadway production of the show have contacted the district in the past week, and some, including Brian Stokes Mitchell, the actor who portrayed Colehouse Walker Jr. in the Broadway version of the show, have offered to participate in a discussion on the show in Cherry Hill.

There will be community discussions taking place after the matinee performances of “Ragtime” on March 12 and 19. The discussion will include the cast of the show, and community partners will also be invited to participate.

All students at Cherry Hill East will also have an opportunity to see the show during the school day. There will also be discussions following the performances for the student body.

The school district did not have an ability to perform a censored version of the show. District officials had several telephone conversations with Music Theatre International, the company holding the rights to “Ragtime.” In a statement released on Friday, district officials said the contract between the district and MTI stipulated the musical must be performed as written or not at all.

Meloche emphasized the final decision on “Ragtime” wasn’t based on a vote, and the district did not deem any individual or group who voiced their opinion as wrong. He applauded community members of both sides who voiced their opinion and life experiences at the meeting. He hopes Tuesday’s meeting is the start of what will be an ongoing conversation in the community.

“I am incredibly grateful the conversation has taken place during the last two weeks,” Meloche said. “I regret that the conversation did not take place months in advance.”

The district will also be making changes to the way it selects spring musicals in the future. A procedure will be developed where musicals will annually undergo the same curricular review as other classroom materials.

“We will formalize a sign-off from the building principal up through central administration up to the superintendent of schools,” Meloche said.

Though the district has made a final decision and the show will take the stage in less than two months, Meloche said the discussion of racism will not end

“This is just the beginning of the reformulation of the community conversations and the school-based conversations we will have around race, around equity and around inclusion,” Meloche said.