Brian Stokes Mitchell, original lead of Broadway Ragtime, educates East’s Theatre students about the impact of the play
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Just over a week from the opening night of Ragtime, the cast, crew and pit orchestra were visited by Broadway actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, the original lead of the musical, on Friday, March 3. Mitchell played the character of Coalhouse for approximately two years, and has been very vocal in the fight to prevent the censorship of the Cherry Hill East’s Spring Musical. Members of the African American Culture Club also joined the discussion, which was held in the auditorium.
Mitchell was first welcomed by the cast with a performance of “Till We Reach that Day”, the final song in Act I. He then began a question and answer session with the students, where he explained how he originally got involved with Ragtime, and the controversial use of the n-word which sparked serious discussion within the Cherry Hill community. Mitchell shared some of the controversies faced by the original cast.
“We had many discussions when we were putting together the show about [the use of the n-word],” he said.
Mitchell emphasized, however, that these sorts of conversations are exactly what should come from the musical. At one point during the initial production, many African American cast members actually stopped a rehearsal after they felt as if the n-word was being used too sparingly. After serious deliberation, the word was only employed at very specific points in the show. Mitchell explained The audience members grow to love the two black lead characters, are are horrified when the word is used in a derogatory way towards them.
“I would be concerned if people were saying ‘Oh, that’s not a big deal,’ ” Mitchell said. “Don’t let [the discussion] stop at Ragtime.”
Students from the African American Culture Club expressed some of their concerns regarding the musical. Some members felt as if they were told of the choice of musical too late, and were presented as the “aggressors” in the situation.
Mitchell also presented his disgust towards the word, yet explained its importance in the show as a whole.
“Most things in art are metaphors,” he said. “The show itself is a metaphor for [our] country.”
The highlight of the day occurred when Mitchell performed “Make them Hear You”, accompanied by Alex Glass (‘18), the pianist in the Pit Orchestra.The song, one of the final numbers of Ragtime, about speaking out for what you believe in. He encouraged all of the students to do just this.
“[Equality],” said Mitchell, “is not going to happen if we don’t try.”
Cedric Middleton (‘17), who will play Coalhouse in the East production, presented Mitchell with a T-shirt and gift on behalf of the entire cast. The show opens on Friday, March 10 for the public, with special performances for the East students during the school day on Thursday, March 9 and 16.