Friday, June 27, 2008



At the intersection where freedom of speech crosses racial sensitivity, the Wilmette (IL) Park District has abruptly canceled its scheduled performances of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' musical Ragtime, due to its use of the "n" word at 12 different times.

While I profess to personally blanching anytime I've heard that awful, egregious epithet used, including in dramatic works, I have never heard anyone accuse Terrence McNally (who wrote Ragtime's book) or Ahrens of racial insensitivity or bigotry.

Reports of the cancellation have even speculated that the Wilmette Park District Executive Director Tom Grisamore may, in fact, have jumped the gun due to a "misunderstanding of the show's message and realistic look at race relations in the past century."

Grisamore has been quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times defending the decision by stating:
We had grave concerns that people would take the language they heard over the amplified sound system out of context from a performance that was being held in the bowl.
I can tell you that this is not something that was done easily and this is not something we did lightly. My heart really goes out to all of the cast and crew that have worked on this for the last couple of months. This is something we very honestly should have known about and hopefully we could have acted on this sooner, but we did as soon as we found out what was there.
As regular readers know, I have always defended our most basic, intrinsic right to freedom of speech. I may not agree with anything that you have to say, but I'll defend your right to say it.

In this case, while I can sincerely appreciate Grisamore's noble intentions, I can't help but agree with the production's director Ty Perry, who gets the last word here:
You take that word out of this story and you invalidate my history as an African-American male.... Do I like the word? No. But to pretend nobody said it is wrong. I wouldn't even consider doing that. Context is everything, and it's not gratuitous, it's not for shock value. How can we learn about our present if we don't educate people about what happened in our past?
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 27 June, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

"Ragtime" is one of the shows I'd most like to see. I read the novel when it first came out, and I loved it. I also saw the movie.

I agree with you, I blanch whenever epithets are used, and some are used way too casually. But I think that you have to make a distinction between using that language for shock value, to inflict pain and spew hatred, or in a misguided attempt to lessen the sting, and using it to explore the effects of bigotry.

From what I remember of the book and movie, Ragtime treats its African-American characters with a great deal of sympathy, and portrays the racism they endured honestly and forthrightly. Which is how it should be.

At 01 July, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I'm not the only one who's outraged. Please see both Parabasis and The Playgoer.


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