At Stray Dog Theatre, Ragtime Is Both Contemporary and Vital 

Henry Ford (Jason Meyers) and Coalhouse (Omega Jones) sing about achieving success by never giving up.

PHOTO BY JOHN LAMB

Henry Ford (Jason Meyers) and Coalhouse (Omega Jones) sing about achieving success by never giving up.

George Santayana's most well-known aphorism about the lessons of history — "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" — gets a lot of play these days, but only because we as a species keep bungling into the same wars, the same brutality and the same horrible outcomes. What good is having the world at your fingertips if everything contained within it is a miserable replay of last century's atrocities, each one a new and yet recurring nightmare?

That is when art proves its worth. Recreating the troubles of the real world within the constraints and restrictions of a novel, play or opera allows us to recognize mistakes and lapses in judgment as they're being made, rather than seeing them only in retrospect. The artificiality is a lens that allows us to see clearly things for what they are. Santayana has a quote for that as well: "The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who have loved it."

Which brings us to Ragtime. Stray Dog Theatre's current production of the musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel about early-twentieth-century America is sharp, focused, relentlessly cruel and, yes, entirely lovable truth. Director Justin Been and his 26-person strong cast (the largest in Stray Dog's history) have combined forces to show us America in all her glory and woe. It is a story as sprawling as the country it depicts, and just like America, it will break you and it will set you free.

The plot wends through the lives of three families: an established and prosperous white family, an immigrant Jew and his young daughter attempting to start over, and a black couple who dream of their infant son one day being fully integrated into America. Their lives converge and separate in cyclical fashion, occasionally intercepting the trajectory of the famous (Houdini, Booker T. Washington) or the infamous (Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman).

As the Jewish father and daughter, Jeffrey M. Wright and Avery Smith arrive with high hopes that are soon dashed by life in a tenement and America's disdain for foreigners (a recurring illness in this country). Wright is one of the strongest singers in St. Louis, but on Saturday night he was undone by a microphone on the fritz — one more indignity for Tateh to weather before ascending to the peak of society.

click to enlarge Mother (Kay Love) discovers a greater love when she lets Sarah (Evan Addams) and her son into her life. - PHOTO BY JOHN LAMB
  • PHOTO BY JOHN LAMB
  • Mother (Kay Love) discovers a greater love when she lets Sarah (Evan Addams) and her son into her life.

Mother (Kay Love) and her family are already ensconced in the society's upper echelons, immune from toil or disappointment. But when she finds an infant black boy in her garden, she awakens to the fact that others struggle to get by. Free from the control of her husband (Phil Leveling), she makes a spontaneous decision to take responsibility for the child and his mother, Sarah (Evan Addams). Mother discovers she likes making her own decisions, and she soon indulges in the practice like an old pro. When Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Omega Jones) shows up at her door to see his gal Sarah, she welcomes him into her home too. This sets off a string of fractures, calamities and bloodshed within both families. It always ends in blood in America.

Jones has shone in a handful of local supporting roles, but here he dominates Ragtime with his charisma, his big, rich voice and his acting technique. Coalhouse is a ragtime pianist, and he plays Mother's piano while waiting for Sarah to forgive him. This turns into "New Music," a song about the changes occurring in both music and in white and black families. Father is against having "this negro" in his house, but Mother and her Younger Brother find joy in Coalhouse's playing — and so does a surprised Sarah. Jones is such an engaging and talented performer that Father seems willfully stupid for shutting himself off.

As amazing as "New Music" is, it's not the song that ultimately sticks with you. That would be "Till We Reach That Day," which follows the murder of Sarah. After she's beaten to death by the police (one of them yells "I thought she had a gun," as they slink off stage, unpunished and anonymous), Coalhouse and the black cast members bury her. Director Been places Ebony Easter, Melissa Sharon Harris, Dorrian Neymour and Chrissie Watkins on the floor in front of the stage, where they sing of blood on the ground and their hope that one day the humanity of black people will be recognized. There are tears in their eyes and rage in their voices, yet of the white cast, only Mother and the radical anarchist Emma Goldman (Laura Kyro) join in their plea.

Ragtime the novel debuted in 1975, and the musical in 1996. Twenty-one years later, women still sing this song over the bodies of their children. More violence follows "Till We Reach That Day," snuffing out possible futures. But the lasting image of Ragtime is of six women prophesying that we will never get to heaven until we change our ways.

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