Tony-Winning Performer Talks With N.J. Students About Power Of Language In ‘Ragtime’

CHERRY HILL, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — A Tony Award-winning actor delivered a lesson in the power of language after a New Jersey school district approved a staging of “Ragtime” – despite the musical’s use of ethnic slurs.

As Cleve Bryan of KYW-TV, CBS3 in Philadelphia reported, the students at Cherry Hill High School East had a private audience with Brian Stokes Mitchell – one of Broadway’s best-known performers. Yet the private discussion was not about reaching new octaves or mastering expression.

It was about a racial slur – the N-word.

“People who are not thinking it’s an ugly word – those are the people I’m concerned with,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, who was nominated for a Tony Award as the lead in “Ragtime,” came to talk with students after the school district almost ditched a springtime production of the show because the N-word is in the script.

“The way the show is designed is for the audience to fall in love with the characters – all of the characters, but particularly Coalhouse and Sarah, so when that language is used against them, the audience also goes, ‘(Gasp)!’” Mitchell said.

Cherry Hill schools wanted to delete the N-word from the show, but copyright laws do not allow schools to change the script. Thus, faced with performing it as written or not at all, the school district took input from parents and community leaders.

They decided the show should go on with the N-word included.

“We came to the conclusion that it would be very good to include this as a curriculum piece and use it as a learning experience,” said Cherry Hill schools spokeswoman Barbara Wilson.

Next week, students will get a school lesson and have a discussion on the N-word, as well as watch a play.

“I would much rather see it in a theater accurately portrayed than hear two teenage boys yell it at each other in the hallway,” said Cherry Hill East student Samantha Roehl.

Mitchell did not want censorship of the play he loves, but said he understands why people are upset.

“I say good — I’m glad you think it’s an ugly word. It should be an ugly word .It is an ugly word,” he said. “It’s not appropriate to use. It’s not appropriate to use the word.”

The lessons on race will happen one day next week in each grade’s history and English classes. The “Ragtime” production opens next Friday.

Stokes Mitchell told students not to let the conversation stop with “Ragtime.” He encouraged them to keep the dialogue going, and to keep openness, exploration and curiosity a part of their lives.

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