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"Ragtime" and a Racial issue.

Updated on April 24, 2011
Al Jolson... from a different era.
Al Jolson... from a different era.
Black and White Minstrels... no longer politically correct.
Black and White Minstrels... no longer politically correct.
Coalhouse, Sarah and Baby.
Coalhouse, Sarah and Baby.
The people called it Ragtime.
The people called it Ragtime.

A Show that ought to be seen by everyone.

Why is it that our local theatre won’t allow a production of “Ragtime” to be put on stage if we have white actors wearing black make-up? I want to assure you from the outset that I am not at all racist, but this is a problem that I find somewhat irksome.

Long gone are the days of Al Jolson, when ludicrous make-up was applied to mimic ‘black’ features, and songs were sung with a vulgar lack of vocabulary and pronunciation. I lived through the era when the “Black and White Minstrel Show” was one of the most popular programmes on the BBC, and have to confess that I loved the music, the singers and the dancing, but I fully understand why the programme was suddenly and silently shelved as a new day of political correctness dawned. Such shows, however, are a far cry from the situation to which I am referring.

“Ragtime”, with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty, is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of musical theatre to have been created in the past few decades. Central to the story is the tragic circumstances surrounding the character of Coalhouse Walker Jnr, and his relationship with Sarah.

When she is beaten to death for trying to fight for his right to justice, following an incident of racist violence, Coalhouse decides to take the law into his own hands by becoming a vigilante. The message is powerful. The mal-treatment of Coalhouse because of the colour of his skin is abominable, and despite the violence to which he is driven, we sympathise with his character as he is eventually gunned down by his persecutors. That such stories should be told is to shine a light on injustice and intolerance….. and yet, in a community where there are few, if any, black performers, it is becoming the trend that the musical cannot be performed. But why?

Also central to “Ragtime” is the story of Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant, who struggles to overcome poverty and discrimination to become a successful movie maker. Never have I heard of an instance of a musical theatre company being denied the right to perform the show because there weren’t any Latvian Jews available to play Tateh or his child. It is apparently acceptable for a western Caucasian performer to make-up, dress-up and mimic the accent and mannerisms of an Eastern European Jew, but not to do likewise with a character of African-American descent.

In both cases, the portrayal of the character is a tribute to the fortitude of their resolve in facing the most inhumane treatment based on their ethnicity, and, as such, it highlights and condemns racism, and yet one portrayal is deemed acceptable and the other not.

No-one objects to performers assuming the characters of the Jewish community in “Fiddler on the Roof”, nor to English actors assuming Japanese features for Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedy opera “The Mikado” (which, quite frankly, DOES make fun of the Japanese, albeit as a satirical dig at western politics.) Yet, dare to don black make-up and the anti-racism brigade is quick to point the finger.

If I had the voice to sing the role of Coalhouse (which, sadly, I don’t), I would consider it a privilege to bring to the stage a character and a story that deserves to be heard. If I was directing the show, and a black actor/singer was available to play the role, I would be so pleased to give him the opportunity, but it would strike me as doing an injustice to the message of the show to fail to present it simply because a black performer was not available.

I have looked, but have been unsuccessful in finding the legal stance regarding the performance of black characters by white actors, and would be grateful if someone could furnish me with such information, but I stand by my belief that, where the portrayal is sincere, and where the message of the performance piece is to highlight injustice, the anti-racism lobby should applaud that white performers should wish to promote such a message to a wider audience. What is offensive about whites standing up for and defending the rights of black people? I’m at a loss to understand.

If you have never seen “Ragtime”, you are missing out on a wonderful piece of theatre, and themes that are relevant to each and every one of us, in our efforts to inhabit a world free from cultural and racial prejudice.

Below are a few links to songs from “Ragtime” as featured on Youtube.


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    • Thatguypk profile image

      Thatguypk 6 years ago

      Agreed, christopher, and thank you for your comment.

      Terry, I'm unaware of Trump's acting abilities, but if they ever do a remake of the Steve Martin movie "The Jerk", I reckon it might be worth his while auditioning!

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      You make a very important point there. What happens when they need to put on "Othello"? Or if they put on a production of "Wind in The Willows", or the "Three Little Pigs".

      The most important thing is to be true to the dramatic intent of the author, and if that requires a white actor to be made up as a black character, or a black actor to be made to look white, so be it.

      There is so much silliness in the world nowadays.

    • Terry.Hirneisen profile image

      Terry.Hirneisen 6 years ago from Shenandoah Valley

      How I love you, How I love you, My dear old Mammy!

      I am not black and I cannot see why there should be a problem when Black Actors are not available. Unless you get Trump to play a role, then it would be insulting.

    • Thatguypk profile image

      Thatguypk 6 years ago

      Hi Fay, and thanks for the response. I should immediately point out that I live in the west of Ireland, where the African-American population is very, very small.

      I have a good friend living here who hails from Zambia, and her attitude is very positive. She's about the only black performer in these parts, and she's excellent, but there are no black men locally who are interested in taking part in shows. I wish there were.

      I would love to present "Ragtime" with a mixed-race cast, but it's not likely to happen here, and while I'm not a big fan of black-face, I find it upsetting that our audiences might not get to see this wonderful musical, with it's strong and significant social messages. If the portrayals are sincere and genuine, I don't understand why they should be considered offensive, but I guess it might be a bigger issue in places where there is a significant African-american population.

    • profile image

      Fay Paxton 6 years ago

      Okay, PK, I just read your excellent argument, but have to admit that my immediate reaction is that there are more than enough African Americans who are perfectly capable of playing the roles. But then it occurred to me that I don't know here you live. At any rate, I try to keep an opened mind, and while I think your points are well made, I must admit, the idea of Whites in Black-face is unsettling to me. I will think on this and if I can figure out how to verbalize what I feel, I will return.