Dear America: You need to see Theater Latte Da’s Ragtime right now. It’s your past and your present. And if we don’t change things, it’ll continue to be your future.
Ragtime is based off the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name and tracks three different story lines that interweave with each other throughout the course of the early 20th century. Mother (Britta Ollmann) is a young woman taking care of her brother (Riley McNutt), her grandfather (James Ramlet), and son (Soren Thayne Miller) while her husband, Father (Daniel S. Hines), is on Admiral Perry’s journey to the North Pole. While gardening one day, she finds a baby in the ground. The baby belongs to Sarah (Traci Allen Shannon), an African-American woman who is the lover of Colehouse Walker (David L Murray Jr), a ragtime pianist. In love with Colehouse but afraid of what having his son means in their relationship, Sarah disappears from him without a trace and tries to get rid of her son. The police catch Sarah after Mother finds her baby but, instead of having her handed over the police, Mother accepts responsibility for Sarah and the child. Sarah lives with the family while Colehouse looks for Sarah to convince her to come back with him. Meanwhile, Tateh (Sasha Andreev) and his daughter (Georgia Blando) have immigrated from Latvia and struggle to survive in the harsh tenement houses of New York. Around them, the world is captivated by the story of Evelyn Nesbit (Emily Jansen), the magic of Harry Houdini (Benjamin Dutcher), and the success of Henry Ford and JP Morgan (James Ramlet and Daniel S Hines). Through all of this, Booker T Washington (Andre Shoals) and Emma Goldman (Debra Berger) call for change against the racism and income inequality in America while Colehouse fights for justice after the unthinkable happens.
I don’t want to give away the full story in this summary, but so much happens in the first act that it feels like a stand-alone story of its own. Despite the fact that this musical takes place over one hundred years ago, it strongly reflects our modern world of racial strife, xenophobia and immigration issues, white privilege, and escapism from the world. It was impossible for me to watch the show and not think about how Tateh could represent Latino, Syrian, or Somalian immigrants today or how the stories of Colehouse and Sarah appear in the news day after day after day.
You will weep during this show – I cried through a great deal with it and was not ashamed. It’s impossible to hide your tears in this production and you’re not meant to. The heavy silence and discomfort at the end of the first act is one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever beheld in a theater this year, and possibly in a theater ever. This show is utterly devastating, beautiful, and desperately needed. Every once in a while, a revival is staged at just the right cultural moment, and that is precisely what Peter Rothstein has done with Ragtime. In another production done with less heart and intellect, these characters could become shallow representations of cultural issues. Instead, the boldly represent what is at stake both in the election and in the world in general. If you don’t understand why so many of us are clamoring for justice, for change, for hope, see this show. There is no way you won’t understand it afterwards.
Ragtime is written by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens. It is directed by Peter Rothstein, music directed by Denise Prosek, and choreographed by Kelli Foster Warder. It is playing now through October 23rd at Latte Da’s new home in the Ritz Theater. Ticket and show information can be found on Latte Da’s website.