"Ragtime" and a Racial issue.
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.