How Our School Play Woke Us Up to Racism

by Joshua Pipe, YEA Camper

There was a collective gasp among the crowd of 500-some ninth and tenth graders as we sat, in our school auditorium, watching our friends perform the musical “Ragtime,” as fictional Fire Chief Willy Conklin referred to Coalhouse Walker, Jr., one of the play’s three main characters, as a slur none of us outside the auditorium would dare repeat: the n-word. I bit my lip harder than I ever had in my life.

Let me rewind: when our school chose “Ragtime” as our spring musical, we had no idea what we were getting into, save, of course, for our theatre director. About two months ago, a member of the NAACP brought the case to our superintendent, Dr. Joseph Meloche, who immediately ordered the play censored. Unfortunately, it was not that simple. The production company, Theatre International, responded in no uncertain terms that the show would go on uncensored or the play would not go on at all. That ultimatum delivered, war broke out: students versus the school board. After two weeks of walking on eggshells and tightrope negotiations, Meloche uncensored the play under the following conditions: first, all English and history classes, for the week leading up to the play, would contain a 90-minute lesson on immigration and racial slurs; secondly, all students would watch the play: the freshman and sophomores would watch it one week, the juniors and seniors the other.

For those of you not familiar with “Ragtime,” the story is based on a novel by E. L. Doctorow and is about three different groups of people navigating through the tumultuous first years of the 20th Century. The story follows a White, upper-class Christian family living in the comfort of New Rochelle, New York. Nameless except for their roles in the family, characters such as Father, Mother, and Younger Brother soon meet Coalhouse Walker, a Black musician from Harlem, and Tateh, a poor, Jewish immigrant from Latvia. The moral of the story is that America is a melting pot of people who, despite their differences, are all equal. The play shows this, however, by a converse proof strategy. The viewer is made to be a firsthand witness to the racism and anti-Semitism that one expects to read about in textbooks.

The play is hard to stomach. Though not personally affected by the slurs against POCs in the play, the sting was there, and hearing anti-Semitic slurs, as a Jewish boy descendant of Holocaust victims, was inexorable, but that is, in fact, the point. America’s history is not comfortable. America’s history is not the grand opera of greatness it is so often projected as. We are a country that has condoned the owning, murdering, and interment of millions, and that is so often forgotten with the bravado and drama of politics. Broadway, especially musicals, have been fighting against this. And that is what makes “Ragtime” so effective: the show doesn’t sugarcoat. It asks the question (almost word for word) “Where is justice if this is America?”

As angry as the play can be at times, the underlying moral is one of hope, and while equality is not always present in America, it can and should be. Coalhouse dreams of an America that will accept him before he wakes to the truth that it was never that simple. Tateh dreams of a life of success and freedom in America, but finds that “the tenements of the Lower East Side were worse than anything he had suffered in Latvia.” The nameless White family wakes up from a slumber of ignorance. A line from a song later in the play in which Coalhouse meets the Younger Brother character, says it all: “Two men meeting, for a moment, in the darkness: one turning from (one waking to) America.”

That is the core of “Ragtime”:  if we simply can wake ourselves up, change can be achieved. The play rings chilling echoes of today, where police are unscrupulously killing POCs in the streets, and Muslim immigrants, instead of Jewish immigrants, are being desecrated by an unwelcoming America. We young activists have a lot to learn from this two-and-a-half-hour tale: how to fight with compassion, how to look introspectively, and how to wake our world up from its slumber of ignorance. That is why our school did not censor this play, and that is why we cannot censor the ugly past of America, because it actually wakes us up.

Which leads me back to two weeks ago, gasping with 499 other students in my school’s auditorium as Coalhouse is defaced and disgraced, and though I had long been awake to the injustices of our society, I could see it in my classmates’ faces: they had finally woken up, too.