Monday, June 17, 2024

The American dream: ‘Ragtime’ dissects immigration, racism, feminism ahead of July 4th

Tickets to “Ragtime” are $35 and it runs through July 2, with showtimes at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, as well as matinees on Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. (Courtesy Opera House Theater Company)

WILMINGTON — The show is as timely as ever. 

That’s the takeaway from the cast and director of “Ragtime,” a Tony-award-winning musical by Terrence McNally.

With music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the sounds of the show come to life through big brass band and ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, klezmer and waltzes, with musical direction from local pianist Brian Whitted.

“My heart soars when these talented singers bring the music to life,” director Fracaswell Hyman said.

It’s Hyman’s directorial debut with Opera House Theatre Company; he won the 2023 Wilmington Theater Award for directing “Schools Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play” for Big Dawg Productions. The actor and author — as well as television writer and producer of “The Famous Jett Jackson, Gullah Gullah Island and Romeo!” — has been on Wilmington stages for years. 

“I’ve always loved the story,” he said of “Ragtime.” 

To prepare for the show, he reread the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, published in 1975. The musical wasn’t produced until 20 years later. 

It intertwines the tale of three experiences from different viewpoints of New Yorkers, all reaching for the American dream.

The show stars Broadway actor Curtis Wiley (“Ain’t Too Proud”) as Harlem pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. who falls in love with a washwoman, Sarah, performed by Bianca Shaw. Their newborn puts them in the sphere of a well-to-do white family — Mother (Megan Lewis), Father (Jon Berry), and their Little Boy (Sadler Selby) — from Rochelle, New York. The family bankrolls on American citizens’ penchant for patriotism by selling flags, fireworks and other red, white and blue regalia. 

Coalhouse and Sarah’s love story is rife with tragedy, while in another circular plot point, a Jewish immigrant and talented visual artist, Tateh (Alex Gallo), in financial peril, finds triumph. After attempting to work in a factory, faced with unfair pay and poor working conditions, the workers’ union goes on strike. Disenfranchised, Tateh leans on his talent as a visual artist, selling work on the street, and ends up becoming a pioneer in animation for the film industry.

“How did two fine artists, Tateh and Coalhouse, end up with such different lives?” Hyman asked. “One tragic because of the color of his skin, one successful because the color of his skin allowed him to assimilate into society by hiding his identity. What does this say about how America was at the turn of the century and still is today?”

The show highlights the inequities of society, through poignant and fatal events of classism, racism, feminism, celebrity obsession and more. Hyman said it was disheartening to see these main themes as relevant 25 years after the novel’s debut.

“Immigrants continue to be viewed as a scourge on our nation,” he said. “Women are still struggling for equality, and racism is not only systemic but on the rise of late.”

He pointed to the summer of 2020 when the George Floyd murder took place, and civil unrest and protests began at the height of Covid-19. Police brutality is covered in “Ragtime,” taking place 120 years before the pandemic; the show also tackles mass shootings.

The plot weaves in well-known figures throughout the 20th century — Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan — and has quite a large cast. Hyman said trusting “their expertise” has been incremental to its success. 

Shaw — who worked with Hyman on “School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play” and won from who/where? Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play — said performing as Sarah has been a dream for years. Shaw studied the original Sarah brought to life by Audra McDonald in the 1997 Broadway cast, as well as 2011’s local version starring Cindy Hospedales.

“As a new mother herself, she has given me great advice on how to navigate motherly instincts through the roller coaster ride of emotions the character takes us on,” Shaw said.

In fact, not having children proved to be one of the reigning challenges for Shaw, as she couldn’t lean on life experiences of childbirth and all it entails thereafter, from postpartum depression to motherly nurturing.

“With the help of all the mothers in this beautiful cast, I’ve been able to grab little nuggets from them and use them in my character development,” she said.

Megan Lewis is playing Mother in the show. It’s her first time performing with Opera House, though she has starred on Broadway in “Grey Gardens” and “Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark.” Lewis said she has never taken on a role as suppressed and stifled as this character. 

“I tend to mostly rely on the Meisner technique, so for Mother, I try to identify what she wants in each scene in its most basic form,” Lewis told PCD. “Then I color it with subjective, outside influences, like this fascinating time period and her opinion of what’s happening around her as a mother, wife, woman, and American.”

Mother is constrained by expectations of upper-echelon New York. Yet, she does end up rejecting the status quo.

“Her character becomes more relatable as a person who, like many of us at some point in our lives, is seeking to define themselves on their own terms,” Lewis detailed.

Though the political undertones in the show mimic modern-day, it’s in a way that highlights stories of people the audience can identify with. Hyman calls the protagonists “every American,” essentially. 

“We are them and they are we,” Hyman said. “History may separate us, but we have shared and still share the experiences of ‘Ragtime.’”

Lewis agreed it’s contemporary and, even if unfortunately so, timeless. 

“The debate continues over whether there is still truth in the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty,” she said. “At the heart of all of these issues are real people whose lives are affected everyday by a changing world. It’s the same for the characters of ‘Ragtime’ and that’s why this show is so powerful. The gains we’ve made have been hard-earned by those who came before us and, in their honor, there’s still work to be done.”

Set design is by Terry Collins with costuming by Debbie Sheu. 

Tickets to “Ragtime” are $35 and it runs June 22 through July 2, with showtimes at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, as well as matinees on Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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