The Playgoer: Ragtime: Too Hot for Wilmette?

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Ragtime: Too Hot for Wilmette?

Via Steve on Broadway, we hear of a cancellation of an outdoor production of the musical Ragtime, due to a fear of the word "nigger" (which is stipulated in the script--uh, which is about racism in Gilded Age America, by the way) being blared out of their park-wide sound-system before "a festival crowd," if you will.

Wilmette Park District Executive Director Tom Grisamore tells the Sun-Times:

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.

In other words: yes, we probably should have read the script sooner--like months ago--to find out what indeed "was there."

Well, ridicule aside, I guess I can understand the concern that even when the show's context makes clear the word "nigger" is being used by clearly bad men against a good black man--and, again that the show is about racism--perhaps innocent passer-by's in the park (in the suburbs of Chicago, a racially tense city at times) might be traumatized by the hearing the word out of context. Back to Grisamore:

"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."
Yet another reason to ban amplification in the theatre, I tell ya.

Man, isn't this specific form of censorship so old, already? I mean, since Huckleberry Finn? And why is it that the censors have almost always not been African Americans themselves, but insecure panicky whites? (And historically, racist white school boards, at that. Do they feel that, heck if we can't say it, no one can!)

Funny that the Wilmette series--apparently more of a "concert" venue than a proper theatre--has previously "booked for the outdoor venue...mostly upbeat and lighthearted, such as 'Hello Dolly,' 'Showboat' and 'State Fair.'"

Showboat, eh? I take it they didn't opt for Hammerstein's original curtain-raising lyrics: "Niggers all work on the Mississippi..."? The now-preferred, authorized version now opens with the much more cheerful "Here we all work on the Mississippi..." The context is different, with black men saying it about themselves so I imagine it could be more troublesome today (especially from a piece by white writers) in raising the debate about the use of the word within the black community itself.

Still, it makes it a lot less of a "chestnut" musical.

1 comment:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Great points throughout, especially on Showboat.

Thankfully, the Wilmette Theatre has now saved this production.