by Tony Adler
Wilmette Life reports that the Wilmette Park District has canceled an outdoor community theater production of Ragtime--you know, the hit musical based on a celebrated novel by E.L. Doctorow--because the script contains the so-called "n-word." (Niggling? Numbing? Nasty?) Authorities feared that residents would hear the derogatory term over the Gillson Park PA system and think . . . what? Perhaps that the prosperous North Shore suburb was being overrun by the sort of folks at whom the n-word is usually directed.
Park District executive director Tom Grisamore expressed anguish over the decision, but not enough to reverse it. The story has Grisamore noting that musicals "booked for the outdoor venue . . . are mostly upbeat and lighthearted, such as Hello Dolly, Showboat and State Fair."
Interesting example Showboat. Like Ragtime, it depicts racism in America. At one point a slave working on the Mississippi sings Ol' Man River, which includes the following lyrics:
"Colored folks work on de Mississippi,
Colored folks work while de white folks play,
Pullin' dose boats from de dawn to sunset,
Gittin' no rest till de judgement day.
Don't look up
An' don't look down,
You don' dast make
De white boss frown.
Bend your knees
An' bow your head,
An' pull date rope
Until you' dead.
Let me go 'way from the Mississippi,
Let me go 'way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan,
Dat's de ol' stream dat I long to cross."
Upbeat and lighthearted, indeed. The real difference between Showboat and Ragtime is that Showboat's antebellum time frame makes it picturesque, while Ragtime concerns a black musician, free and talented, who's driven mad with rage by America's refusal to treat him as a man--a circumstance on which the statute of limitations has yet to run out.
There's some blog activity over the park district's action at the Web site of the Northern Illinois Community of Theatres, but it's mostly of the hand-wringing variety. What would I have people do? Go just a slight bit mad with rage.