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Broadway star to mentor Cherry Hill students in 'Ragtime' controversy

Brian Stokes Mitchell is to spend time with students as part of the South Jersey district’s plan to discuss the sensitive racial themes in the musical before it debuts March 10 at East high school.

The star of the original Broadway production of the musical Ragtime, Brian Stokes Mitchell, is expected to visit Cherry Hill High School East on Friday to help students tackle the use of the N-word and other racially charged language in the school's upcoming production,  district officials said Wednesday.

Mitchell is scheduled to spend several hours with students as part of the South Jersey district's plan to discuss the sensitive racial themes in Ragtime prior to the March 10 debut of the show at the school for a nine-day run.

In addition to closed meetings with students, Mitchell is expected to participate in an open "talk back" with the musical's cast, officials said.

About 2,200 students in grades nine through 12 attend East, one of two high schools in the district.

A controversy erupted in January over the use of the N-word in the award-winning musical. It brought national attention to the school after civil rights leaders filed a complaint seeking to alter the script or halt the play.

Mitchell, nominated for a Tony Award in the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the Broadway production, was among those who urged the district to allow Cherry Hill East students to perform the play as written. The play also includes slurs used by characters against other ethnic groups.

Mitchell offered to come to Cherry Hill to speak with students about the show. He made a similar visit to Columbia High School in South Orange, N.J., in 2015 when students there performed Ragtime.

"It is about terribly ugly things that happen to people and how they surmount that. Our country has an ugly history with race,"  Mitchell told the Arts Integrity Institute in January.

Ragtime depicts the fictional story of a black family, a Jewish immigrant family, and a wealthy white couple in New York City at the turn of  the century. It includes themes of racism, intolerance, and injustice. The N-word is uttered several times by the lead character.

Copyright laws prohibited modifying the script, leaving the district with the option to perform the musical as written or not all. The play runs through March 19.

Cherry Hill East students will also have required discussions about racism and stereotypes in history and English classes next week.

"The lesson will be presented not as a lesson about one word, but about name-calling and the consequences of labels," said district spokeswoman Barbara Wilson. "Instructors will explain to students at the beginning of the lesson that the goal of the lesson is to understand the nature of disrespect and the consequences of using stereotypical labels to describe people."

In addition to the classroom discussion, every student at Cherry Hill East will have the option to see the play. Attendance is voluntary.

Signs will be displayed at the Ragtime performances to alert the audience to the themes and language. The cast will also make a brief statement before the curtain goes up at each performance.  At the end of every performance, the audience will be again reminded that the show reflects the bigotry of that time, district officials said.

Lloyd D. Henderson, president of the Camden County East Branch of the NAACP, said he plans to monitor how the district implements the plans and Mitchell's discussion. The civil rights group maintains that Ragtime is inappropriate for a high school production because of the racial slur.

"That word has an awful history," Henderson said Wednesday. "To use that play in this culture ... does no good. There are other plays - great plays that could have been chosen."

Ragtime was selected last spring by Cherry Hill East students and approved by the theater department, officials said. The production will cost about $38,000, officials said.