Last weekend, The WordPlayers presented a striking rendition of the musical Ragtime at the Bearden High School Auditorium. Large, diverse crowds packed every performance and responded with resounding delight. With this recent production, The WordPlayers reached new levels of professionalism, distinguishing their company as a top theatrical house in the Knoxville community.
I arrived Sunday afternoon at about 2:00 p.m. for the 2:30 p.m. performance. Cars streamed into the parking lot in front of Bearden High School as families, students and other groups streamed into the building. When I entered the auditorium, the room was already three-quarters full and at 2:29 crowds were packing into the room. I was particularly struck by the diversity of people. Looking and listening to the incoming crowds, I noticed students, families, seniors, whites, blacks, Indian, Arabic, and even Eastern Europeans.
As the lights dimmed and voices hushed, the stage came alive with a mix of people and cultures converging in one story. Set in the early years of the twentieth century, Ragtime follows the converging lives of three American families: a white family, an Eastern European family, and an African-American family. The stories of these families provide a backdrop to explore both the dark tensions and hopeful possibilities when such diverse lives are intertwined.
The music, choreography and costumes helped distinguish the various cultures while also transforming the characters before our eyes. We hear and see people changing as America is changing. We hear the prejudices and challenges of adaption expressed through the family known simply as Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Grandfather and their young son Edgar. In the racist, yet humorous quips of Grandfather, the tension in Father between the old world and the new, the love of Mother for Sarah and her baby, the identification of Younger Brother with the oppressed, and the childlike play of Edgar with the Eastern European Little Girl, we see the wide range of responses to the new world that is emerging as cultures mix.
This intertwining of cultures gives Ragtime a voice that is just as relevant today as the time it depicts. We still have immigrants, coming to America and reshaping America like the story of Tateh and his daughter, Little Girl. Through him and a chorus of Eastern European immigrants, like the socialist Emma Goldman and the magician Harry Houdini, we encounter the struggle and culture shock of other people entering America while being changed and changing our landscape at the same time.
The musical introduces not only immigrants from other shores, but the voice of African Americans from our own shore. Centered in a story of love, struggle and rebellion about Coalhouse Walker, the mother of his child Sarah, and the baby, we see and hear the impossible odds of this black musician trying to find respect and justice in this shifting cultural landscape.
When Coalhouse Walker plays ragtime, Younger Brother responds, “Small clear chords hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets.” The music becomes a vehicle for demonstrating the mixing of cultures, the shifting of viewpoints, the emergence of new possibilities. As we watch Mother embrace Sarah and the baby, hear Father wrestle with the responsibility to his “neighbor,” and follow Younger Brother’s change in the encounter between races, we are caught up in the struggle.
Ragtime holds a mirror up to our current culture, helping us see the very real struggles we face between races, immigrants and the new world that America is always becoming. I found the play riveting and provocative, confronting my own responsibilities in this culture. As the final song came to a close, the audience erupted in a cheering, standing ovation for such a stunning performance. I hope the story will continue to haunt us with truth.
For those who missed this amazing show, The WordPlayers will be presenting it as part of the 2nd Annual Theatre Festival at the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville on Friday, July 27 at 6 PM and Saturday, July 28 at 1 PM.