North suburban park district say strong racial language in the musical “Ragtime” prompted their decision Wednesday to cancel the show two weeks before it was set to open.
I have not written about a news piece in a long time. This I find unacceptable. To that end I wrote the following to the Park District Executive Director Tom Grisamore the following email.
Good morning Mr. Grisamore
I am writing to express my concern regarding the decision to cancel ‘Ragtime’. As an actor and a patron of the arts it deeply saddens me to know there is someone/something out there censoring art. Especially art that has been around for a considerable length of time. So much information is available about ‘Ragtime’ I found it sad and insulting to read “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.” Once again, the information is available and secondly art reflects humanity.
For that, a well known bard put it best “…the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 17–24″
We may not agree with the past, but it is what it is. Reflecting it and the present times is the part of playing (acting). The damage has been done, in that the show has been canceled, but it can be re-instated. Please consider this based on the responses of not only the director of the show but the community (poll posted below).
Thank you for your time.
Did the Wilmette Park District make the right decision in canceling ‘Ragtime’?
Yes 8% 153 votes
No 91% 1706 votes
Total Votes: 1859
June 26, 2008
FROM STNG WIRE REPORTS
Officials of a north suburban park district say strong racial language in the musical “Ragtime” prompted their decision Wednesday to cancel the show two weeks before it was set to open.
Those involved in the production — set for Wilmette’s Gillson Park — say the decision means the loss of more than a month of hard work by a cast of nearly 40, and a misunderstanding of the show’s message and realistic look at race relations in the past century.
Wilmette Park District Executive Director Tom Grisamore said he made the decision to pull “Ragtime” 12 days after learning the details of dialogue and lyrics that include use of the “n-word.”
Wilmette cancels ‘Ragtime’ due to language
Wilmette Park District Executive Director Tom Grisamore said he made the decision to pull the show 12 days after learning the details of dialogue and lyrics that include use of the “n-word.” The show was set to open July 10 for three weekends in the Starlight Theater free outdoor concert series.
“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,” Grisamore said.
Licensing agents for the show declined a request to rewrite parts of the lyrics, so it was dropped.
“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,” Grisamore said. “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.”
Musicals usually booked for the outdoor venue, Grisamore said, are mostly upbeat and lighthearted, such as “Hello Dolly,” “Showboat” and “State Fair.”
Grisamore said the district bought the rights to the show in January, but no one involved in the process apparently had seen the show all the way through. As a result, concerns about the language were not relayed until more recently.
Revising the show’s language without permission would have subjected the district to fines of up to $150,000 per word per use, Grisamore said.
“Ragtime” tells the interlocking stories of Coalhouse Walker, an African-American pianist; Tateh, a recently arrived Jewish immigrant who comes to the U.S. to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe; and finally, a nameless, upper-class white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant family who live in a neighborhood without African-Americans or immigrants.
Aaron Bolden, who plays Coalhouse Walker in the production, said he was shocked to hear of the decision Wednesday afternoon. He was set to make the commute from Rockford for a rehearsal.
“I’m just terribly saddened by the impact that it has on those who invested their time, their emotion, their expression, their gifts,” Bolden said. “Everybody in this cast has something to contribute and for this to happen in this manner, it’s just disappointing.
“I guess the best way to say it is it really reflects the times we’re living in, in relevance to the show, and I think still the work that needs to be done on a lot of levels.”
Bolden said he has played the character in other productions of “Ragtime,” and the show was well-received by audiences. The use of the n-word reflects the realities of a time when lynching was still common, the South was still firmly under the control of Jim Crow and success by African-Americans, including Bolden’s character, was seen as a threat by many white Americans. If the Park District had managed to rewrite part of the show, it would have compromised its integrity, he said.
“It’s a part of the concept of and the context of the period. It’s not to intimidate. It’s not to make someone feel a certain way, it’s being used to portray an accurate picture of what most likely did happen during those times,” Bolden said.
The show’s director, Equity actor Ty Perry, could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but in a Pioneer Press interview prior to the show’s cancellation, explained why he intended to include the original language in the show, including the n-word.
“You take that word out of this story and you invalidate my history as an African-American male,” said Perry.
“Do I like the word? No. But to pretend nobody said it is wrong. I wouldn’t even consider doing that,” Perry said. “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?”
It’s not clear what the decision will cost the district financially. Actors in the production receive no pay, but the director, choreographer and music director are compensated.
Also unclear is whether the district will be able to get back any of $2,500 paid for the rights to run the show.