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Cherry Hill East's controversial 'Ragtime' wins national theater award

E.L. Doctorow's widow calls the show 'awesome'

Broadway has the Tony Awards. Hollywood has the Oscars. But Cherry Hill High School East has received a different kind of honor.

After a performance of the musical Ragtime on Thursday afternoon, with some in the audience having been affiliated with the Broadway show,  the cast and crew were presented with a "Courage in Theatre" award for a production that was nearly canceled in January after controversy erupted over the use of the N-word.

Musical Theatre International (MTI) selected the school "for its perseverance and dedication to the arts in the face of adversity," said president Drew Cohen.  It was only the third time that the New York-based licensing agency has given the award since it was established in 2007.

Those in the auditorium, packed with hundreds of students and staff, applauded loudly when the award was announced after the curtain call. The announcement was kept as a surprise.

"I can't thank you enough," said Tom Weaver, a teacher at East who produced and directed the musical. "It takes an entire community to produce a production like this. We have so much to be proud of."

Thursday's special performance drew rave reviews, including praise from Helen Doctorow, the widow of E.L. Doctorow,  who wrote the 1975 novel upon which the play is based. She said it was "awesome."

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 20th century. It includes themes of racism, intolerance, and injustice, and uses slurs against blacks and other ethnic groups.

After civil rights leaders objected to the use of the N-word in the musical, Cherry Hill School Superintendent Joseph Meloche said the play would be presented without the racial slur. He reversed that decision after the licensing agency said the script could not be altered.

The musical opened last Friday to a sellout crowd to begin an eight-show run. It ends Sunday with a matinee.

"It was totally impressive,"  Doctorow said after the performance. It was the first time she has seen a high school production of the musical. She plans to see the professional version soon at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

Peter Filichia, a former theater critic with the Newark Star-Ledger who is now with MTI, said that he had seen over 500 high school plays and that East's Ragtime was "the finest high school production I've seen."

Neil Costa, the husband of Lynn Ahrens, who wrote the Ragtime lyrics, also lauded Thursday's performance as one of the best he has seen. Ahrens and fellow authors Stephen Flaherty and Terrence McNally advocated for the show to be performed as written.

"We were just so joyful when the word came through that the production would be able to go through as written," Costa said.

The debate about the N-word brought national attention to the South Jersey school of about 2,200 students, one of two high schools in the district.

A chorus of artists and supporters, including the Tony-winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, who played lead character Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime on Broadway, lobbied the district to let the play go on as scripted. Mitchell spent a day at the school two weeks ago, meeting with students and sharing his experiences.

Cherry Hill school officials pledged to use Ragtime as a teachable moment and have special discussions in English and history classes to help students deal with the thorny issue of race. That continued Thursday with a "talk-back" after the performance.

The cast remained on the stage and students were given an opportunity to ask questions. Several wanted to know how the cast felt about the controversy over the production.

Katherine Trauger, who plays one of the lead roles as the Jewish mother, said it was important for the audience to hear the play's messages. The play addresses hate speech, race, and class conflicts.

"It's ugly, but that's what it was back then and still is today," Trauger said.

Doctorow said her husband used the N-word to make the audience fall in love with the musical's main black characters, Coalhouse and his love interest, Sarah, "and then to make anybody in the audience who felt comfortable using that word feel guilty."

Cohen said students demonstrated courage and maturity in moving forward with the production during an emotional debate about whether the show should go on unaltered. The licensing agency gets about 100 requests annually for Ragtime, with about 25 percent coming from high schools, he said.

"It takes a lot of work to put on a show, and that's with the wind at your back," Cohen said. "When there are some obstacles … in front of you, that's something that should be applauded when the show goes on after all."

Cohen said the MTI award is presented when an arts organization has "confronted challenges that threaten their ability to explore or express their artistic vision in positive ways, even if it means taking an unpopular stance."

The first winner was students and teachers at Green Valley High School in Las Vegas for a 2010 production of Rent. Critics objected to issues of drug use and sexuality.

In 2012, the award was presented to the special-needs students of New York City's Spectrum School for writing and producing an original musical, A Powerful Day, depicting the performers' own experiences as "differently abled" children.