Washington’s Ford’s Theater with “Ragtime”: Resonates with Our Time

Amy Henderson
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Cast of the musical “Ragtime” at Ford’s Theatre, directed by Peter Flynn. All photos by Carol Rosegg.

From the opening notes of its come-hither “Prologue,” the new Ford’s Theatre production of Ragtime is an immersive experience. This historic Washington, D.C., theater is intimate: the stage sits close to the audience, and actors at times run back-and-forth along the aisles. Ford’s also has a unique identity no other theater can offer, because hovering over all the action is the Presidential Box where Lincoln was shot. The legacy of his injunction to find “the better angels of our nature” gives this production of Ragtime a particular poignancy.

Ragtime music emerged in the late 19th century as American life sped into a faster gear. Modern urban life pulsed with a search for the new, and ragtime’s “ragged” syncopation captured that urgent sensibility. Composer Scott Joplin (below, right) fed ragtime’s vogue with such wildly-popular hits as “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) and “The Entertainer” (1902, and Tin Pan Alley churned out enormous volumes of ragtime sheet music. Among the ambitious songwriters jumping on the ragtime bandwagon was young Irving Berlin, whose first hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911.

It was an age that embraced the American Dream. Immigrants streamed into Ellis Island, fleeing the confines of the Old World for America’s promise of hope and opportunity. Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play The Melting Pot captured the moment explicitly when his Russian immigrant protagonist declaimed, “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming….Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”

A year before it opened on Broadway, The Melting Pot was produced at Washington’s Columbia Theater, then located about a block from Ford’s. On October 5, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt attended the opening night performance. He sat next to Mrs. Zangwill, and when the playwright took his curtain call, the irrepressible Roosevelt shouted out, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill!”

The American “melting pot” was E.L. Doctorow’s subject in his best-selling 1975 historical novel Ragtime. Doctorow focused on three different groups caught up in the transformation of American life at the turn of the 20th century: the first was a wealthy family immersed in the maelstrom of change; another depicted African Americans searching for hope despite overwhelming barriers; the third told the story of an Eastern European immigrant father determined to give his young daughter the American Dream.

In the mid-1990s, impresario Garth Drabinsky decided to adapt Doctorow’s book as musical theater, and produced an $11 million razzle-dazzle production that opened on Broadway in 1998. With book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime was a hit and made Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald major stars.

Yet the idea of a “melting pot culture” lost favor in a more multicultural age, and while Ragtime enjoyed a two-year Broadway run, critics sniffed at its “rampant nostalgia.” A 2009 revival launched by Washington’s Kennedy Center managed only 65 performances in New York.

Right: The cast of “Ragtime.”

Ford’s Theatre has now created a Ragtime that resonates profoundly in our multicultural age. Its message is rollicking, upbeat, and full of hope that the American Dream still exists—that there is still a national desire for the “Unum” amidst a fragmented culture of “Pluribus.”

The cast is impressive and entirely drawn from the Washington theater community. Patrick Pearson, Ford’s Director of Artistic Programming, explained that they pared the cast size from the original Broadway version’s 40-45 to this production’s 22 adults and three children. Instead of separating stars from the ensemble, all actors perform as an ensemble—much like a troupe of actors would have circa 1900.

Left: Kevin McAllister, Nova Y. Payton

Even with the ensemble approach, there are stand-out performers in each of the three groups showcased in Ragtime. Kevin McAllister commands the stage as Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr., sweet-talking Sarah with his rich baritone and sharing the hope conveyed by his shiny new Model T Ford in the show-stopping song, “The Wheels of a Dream.”

Jonathan Atkinson portrays the Eastern European immigrant Tateh, desperate to create a better life for his daughter. Ragtime takes Tateh from his impoverished life as an itinerant silhouette-maker to his emergence as one of the first movie-makers. His story is based on the real-life sagas of the immigrants who actually invented Hollywood, moguls like the Warner Brothers, Samuel Goldwyn, and Cecil B. DeMille.

Right: Tracy Lynn Olivera, Henry Baratz, Dulce Pham and jonathan Atkinson.

The third group is a wealthy family in New Rochelle, N.J. Their money comes from the manufacture of American flags and fireworks, and they are only named “Father,” “Mother,” “Grandfather,” “Younger Brother,” and “Little Boy.” While nameless, it is this group that is pivotal because they weave all of Ragtime’s stories together. When Father heads off for a year to join Admiral Peary’s search for the North Pole, Mother is transformed by the times: she rescues a new-born African American baby, takes in the baby’s mother Sarah, and reconnects Sarah to Coalhouse. When Coalhouse plays ragtime on the family’s piano, Mother intuitively connects with this music of the new age. She becomes used to making her own decisions while Father is away, and when he returns, he discovers that his old role of Pater Familias has been radically reduced. At one point, he complains that he “can’t hear the new music.”

Left: Tracy Lynn Olivera

Mother’s new identity shines forth when she sings that she can never go “Back to Before.” As Mother, Tracy Lynn Olivera vibrantly transforms this song into an anthem for women’s independence, and her performance is thrilling.

African Americans are the one group not allowed space in the melting pot crucible, and their fate in Ragtime illuminates the brutal prejudice that has continually blocked their pursuit of the American Dream. In Ragtime, Coalhouse Walker’s shiny new Model T is destroyed in a confrontation with Irish American firemen—themselves newly-minted examples of the immigrant experience. When Sarah, the mother of his child, is beaten to death by a rampaging mob, Coalhouse rejects all hope and embarks on a life of vengeance. After a hostage situation that includes both Booker T. Washington and Father, Coalhouse is killed by police.

Right: Rayanne Gonzales

The singular figure who serves as “the tie that binds” for the remaining players is Mother. She raises Coalhouse and Sarah’s son, and when Father dies on the Lusitania, she marries newly-successful movie mogul Tateh. The circle is completed.

A sprinkling of historical figures adds zest to Ragtime, and includes appearances by magician Harry Houdini, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, African American leader Booker T. Washington, inventor Henry Ford, and financier J.P. Morgan, who unabashedly declaims that “all men are created equal, but the cream rises to the top.”

The multi-level set designed by Milagros Ponce de Leon transitions smoothly from set-to-set, with Clint Allen’s projections contributing to the swift changes-of-scene. The boater-hatted band perched on the set’s level two is excellent.

Left: Elab Zafir, Felicia Curry, Justine “Icy” Moral, Eban K. Logan and Stephan F. Schmidt.

As the entire cast rejoins onstage for the resounding finale, “Make Them Hear You,” it becomes clear why Ragtime resonates so well. For Patrick Pearson, Director of Artistic Programming, “It is the right show for our time. We can’t run from our history or from Lincoln’s legacy.”

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

RAGTIME will be at Ford’s Theatre through May 20, 2017. For information, visit www.fords.org.

Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery. Among her publications is Red, Hot & Blue: A Smithsonian Salute to the American Musical.

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