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Ragtime’s Australian premiere

06 Nov 2019

Ragtime’s Australian premiere Image

By Meg Hill

E.L. Doctorow named his 1975 novel Ragtime, after a style of music that emerged from African American communities at the end of the 19th century.

Ragtime is syncopated piano music; contrasting sections move in and out and work both with and against each other, while overall an upbeat optimism is maintained.

Doctorow’s novel attempts to portray America at the turn of the last century. The first generation of freed slaves were adult citizens, a newly organised working class clashed with industrial magnates, women were soon to win the vote, and fresh waves of European immigrants arrived with their own vision of the American dream.

The novel was turned into a Broadway musical in the 1990s and has just premiered in Australia at Arts Centre Melbourne as the Production Company’s penultimate show before it wraps up for good next year.

Joti Gore, who takes on the role of Booker T. Washington – an African American leader known for respectability and one of the musical’s historical characters – said previous attempts to bring the show to Australia had failed.

“I had an Uber driver who was previously a fundraiser for the Marriner Group and he said they tried to bring it here a long time ago but couldn’t raise the funds, and I think he felt that part of it was that Australia wasn’t ready,” Joti said.

“It’s very timely, the themes and the ideas are all set back in time but are still relevant to today and in a whole plethora of ways it translates into today’s society about human rights, colour, class, sexuality and the empowerment of women.”

Ragtime threads those sections of early 20th century American society – the black community, workers, business owners, rich whites and Jewish migrants – through a story centred on African American couple Sarah (Chloe Zuel) and Coalhouse Walker Jnr (Kurt Kansley).

“When I heard about the audition, I researched the show and there was a lot I related to in Booker T. Washington,” Joti said.

“He even travelled through the mountains in the US where my family now own property. His passion for education and equality and for people was what drew me to him.”

History is also personified through the inclusion of Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, JP Morgan and Evelyn Nesbit.

As the story develops so does the dissonance between the optimism of the music and the reality of America for many of the characters.

Tateh (Alexander Lewis), a Jewish migrant who brings his daughter to the new world where he expects to earn success proportionate to hard effort, soon proclaims “I hate you America”.

When the cast perform a choregraphed sequence as manufacturing workers, Henry Ford tells the audience what it means for him: assembly lines turned workers into another piece of equipment, performing atomised, repetitive tasks.

“Speed up the belts!” Henry Ford intermittently yells through his narration.

Coalhouse Walker Jnr enters the show hopeful and with full faith in legal justice for blacks. He models himself on his hero Booker T. Washington and repeats his advice not to meet hate with hate.

But he soon comes to represent the radical side of black politics. For most viewers the pair appear as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jnr.

It’s likely Coalhouse is in truth partly inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois, a radical black activist who criticised Washington’s vision for change for its temporary compromise with Jim Crow laws in the south.

The show’s main white characters, a rich upper-class family, are also meant to represent internal divisions. The divisions turn to ruptures as family members take different sides in Coalhouse’s mission for justice.

But it’s one part of the musical that might translate to young audiences today as unoriginal and potentially tone-deaf.

The most memorable vocal performance is pulled off by Ruva Ngwenya as Sarah’s friend.

“The show is very complex musically and journeys through a lot of styles. I’m lucky enough to sing the big gospel number of the show which closes act one. It’s very spiritual and gospel, a solid representation of the spirituality of black America,” Ruva said.

“The musical is an ensemble piece, so we have a black ensemble, the migrant ensemble, the white ensemble and then they all come together at different times.”

She said the dissonance between what progress is believed to have been achieved and a disappointing reality is the main take away.

“What does this stuff mean today? Have we made as much progress as we think we have? It’s set in 1902 but we’re talking about 2019.”

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