“Ragtime”: Battles That Are More Than Black and White

By Zita Lam

Three American stories about the land of the free, “Ragtime” captures the dream of our country through the lens of art and music. In collaboration with Asolo Repertory Theatre, this Tony Award-winning musical is now playing at The 5th Avenue Theatre through Nov. 5, 2017.

Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, this musical is set in New York City during the deviant 20th century. It projects a glorious yet tough time in the America’s history. The world of “Ragtime” is shaped subtly as some of the most significant historical figures blend perfectly into the story. Their values, ideas, and temperaments reflect on the societal structure then, more or less, it is similar to the one we surround ourselves nowadays. In fact, it is an era of fame, money, success, poverty, immigrant and racism.

The production begins with a vivid silhouette picture in the background, followed by cast’s excellent prologue. Spotlights illuminate three main characters of the story – bourgeoisie housewife Mother (Kendra Kassebaum), African-American musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr (Douglas Lyons), and Jewish immigrant Tateh (Joshua Carter).

Under the influence of the great entrepreneurs at that time, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, becoming successful is just everyone’s goal. Mother’s husband follows the path of Matthew Henson and Robert Peary to explore the North Pole. While on his way to the north, another ship is sailing to America – Tateh and The Little Girl are entering a new journey of their lives. Tateh profoundly believes in the American Dream and strives to earn a good living. Coalhouse, at this time, is already a famous musician who is enjoying his luxurious lifestyle. Plus the dazzling performance of Evelyn Nesbit (Billie Wildrick), the first half of act one fuels the audience with excitement and an illusion of the city’s glamour.

W.E.B Du Bois once said, “The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people,–a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.” (The Souls of Black Folk) When the night is cold, and the music stops, all we see are poverty, violence, and racism.

The tone of the musical switches dramatically in the second half of act one – it starts to get heavy. The differences between social classes, races, and education levels are brought into the spotlight. As each story starts to connect one another, unfortunate incidents happen to Coalhouse and his girlfriend, becoming the string to move the plot forward. Would the couple be able to fight against injustice? How would a middle-class family treat the people outside of their race? Is the American Dream true? How many things have we failed to see by deceiving the illusion of society?

Book successfully adapted by Terrence McNally, and with the help of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, this production has won many awards since the 1996 premiere.

Peter Rothstein, director of The 5th Avenue’s production of “Ragtime,” is aimed to present a reimagined production to the audience. Not only were the number of actors adjusted, but the central characters are given more attention and focus. “I intentionally said there would be no chorus. The production would engage just the principal characters,” Rothstein said in an interview featured in the production program.

As much as the solo piano performance is the theme of the musical, it is used to associate a powerful cultural symbol. Originated in the African-American community, the style of ragtime music takes an important role of storytelling.  Through the tailored mise-en-scène, “Ragtime” tells a story of our nation and it interprets humanity in a creative and compelling way.

The “Ragtime” running time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. For more information, visit https://www.5thavenue.org

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