Kennesaw State University Department of Theatre’s production of Ragtime was a brilliant and entertaining look into the lives of very different people coming together as America changes into a new world. This musical, written by Terrence McNally, explores the struggles of people in America as they begin to question the status quo of society. Within the musical, we follow the stories of three groups of people: the suburban white family with lots of money and seemingly no problems to speak of, the African Americans struggling to find their place in a country that says they are free but does not treat them as such, and a group of immigrants coming to America in search of the perfect land they have heard so much about, only to be met with more struggles for work and money. As these characters fight for love, purpose, and success, they begin to interact with each other and realize that they are not as different as they once believed.
Something that really stuck out to me in this performance was the naming of the characters. I believe this speaks very loudly to the themes of race and equality that the play focuses so heavily on. So often in history, we only get the names of the white people, everyone else seems to come secondary or fall into the background. This play calls that out and does just the opposite. The immigrants and the African American characters are given names such as Sarah, Coalhouse, Tateh, and even the historical figures such as Houdini and Booker T. Washington. All of these characters get a name to be remembered by; where as the white family is simply called by their roles: Mother, Father, Little Boy, and Grandfather. This is a powerful choice made by the playwright that truly speaks to the intention of this play to move past the highlight of the white experience and focus on the struggles and successes of the others in American society. This is a fabulous and bold rejection to the way things are typically done in our society and history, and it goes against the grain of what we would expect. This is a great reflection of the human condition as it forces us to give a name to those history chooses to ignore, and set the too often celebrated class to the side for a moment. Something as little as naming some characters and not others gives this performance a whole new level of complexity when discussing the human condition and I believe it is so important to the play’s overarching themes of race, equality, and justice.
Social and cultural issues are a priority for this performance. We see struggles within gender roles between Mother and Father. Father expects to be the “man of the house” and make all of the decisions even though he is gone for extended periods of time. Mother enjoys having some agency and responsibility and begins to question why she simply fell into the passive life as a mother and a wife. There are struggles of race when Mother takes in Sarah and the Baby, and everyone is instantly worried about what others will think of her. We see major racial struggles in Coalhouse’s story. When he is harassed by the volunteer firefighters, when his car is destroyed simply because of the color of his skin, and when he is tricked by Father and killed at the end of the play. Perhaps one of the hardest and most emotional examples of social issues happens at the end of act I when Sarah is shot and killed simply for trying to speak up for Coalhouse. I could go on and on about the cultural and social issues because this story is absolutely full of them, but to me the issues of race and brutality are the most important and the most prominent within this play.
We see multi-cultural aspects mainly within Tateh’s story and the other immigrants. They are Jewish and wildly misunderstood by the predominately Christian culture of America. These lines begin to blur as well by the end of the play when Mother and Tateh decide to marry despite their extreme differences.
I believe the cultural and social issues explored in this play are still widely relevant today. While America has come a long way since the time period in which this is set, we still see issues of racial injustice far too often. Sarah’s death, in particular, makes me think of our current issue of police brutality. An innocent woman, deemed dangerous by an officer simply because of her appearance, lost her life. This still happens today and it needs to be addressed. This connection to the past and present can be extremely helpful in facing our issues in today’s society. It is often hard to admit our mistakes, but when we can compare them to something like this performance, it makes it seem more real and accessible. For example, it might be easier to discuss police brutality in referring to Sarah’s death rather than a more current instance in our own community. Why? Because it takes out the politics, and we can simply focus on the issues.
In the play, I certainly emphasized with Mother the most. As a white female in today’s society, it is difficult to balance what is expected of you and what you truly desire. Mother’s struggles to be the proper woman while also trying to find her purpose really resonated with me. The moment when she spoke up to the officer and said she would take full responsibility for Sarah and the baby was a huge defining moment for her. In this moment, she stood up for what was right rather than what was expected, and this marks the beginning of her transformation throughout the play.
I believe Mother is motivated by finding a purpose. She does not want to sit back and let the men do everything; that is why she begins to stand up to her husband. When Mother makes the choice to keep the baby and Sarah, she risks her reputation and must deal with whatever reaction her husband has when he returns home. Despite the fear of this, she makes the choice for what is right. She has the means to take care of these two and that is exactly what she does. The actress playing Mother, Abagail Dawkins, does a fabulous job expressing Mother’s internal struggles through her facial expressions and tone of voice. In that moment when she decides to keep the baby and mother, her entire demeanor changes, she grows stronger. It is subtle, but effective.
Overall, Ragtime was an extremely powerful performance that allowed me to better understand the cultural and social issues in America both at the turn of the century, and still today. The director and actors did an amazing job bringing this story to life, making me feel every emotion along with them, and teaching the audience some important lessons about where we have been and where we are going as a society.