Although I had read the text, libretto, and seen Ragtime rehearsal previous to the production opening, I was not offended by the usage of the term”nigger” until I saw the production live. After the show, I found myself wondering why I had such a visceral reaction to Michael Oliver’s portrayal of Willie Conklin. Despite having some historical roots, I know that Ragtime is essentially a fictitious play. Furthermore, I know Michael well and I am certain that outside the context of acting, Michael would never use such derogatory language. However, despite these facts, I found the prevalence of the word nigger in the musical unsettling. Consequently, I decided to research said term in hopes of discovering why Conklin’s use of the term bothered me.
The term “nigger” did not always have a negative connotation. Deriving from the Latin word niger (meaning the color black), variations of the term were used to describe black people. It was not until the late 19th century/early 20th century that nigger became a pejorative word in the South and other places in and outside the United States. Today, complexity to the term has been added. Although the word still has largely negative connotations when people of Caucasian descendant use the term in reference to blacks, within the black community, black people transform the meaning and visceral reaction to the word when they refer to each other. Despite the controversy, certain sectors of the black community use the term to highlight companionship and community.
With that being understood, I believe I understand why I had such a visceral reaction to Willie’s (or Michael’s) usage of the term “nigger.” I have spent the majority of my life in the South in a predominately white and often times racist community. Consequently, my experience with the term is negative. Furthermore, while viewing the production, I was no longer Kimberly Welch, a Duke student, watching her peers perform a play. In that moment, I was simply a spectator–a spectator who became vividly aware of her race and the race of others around her during the performance. Entrenched in the world that the Ragtime cast had created, the lines between reality and play blurred. I believe this speaks to the effectiveness of the production in producing a thought provoking, uncomfortable play that tells the story of the era of Ragtime.