University of Kentucky voice student Willnard Anderson has seen the recent racial unrest in the United States up close when he has gone home to Ferguson, Mo.
“Where Mike Bown was killed was literally four minutes walking from my front door,” Brown says, referring to the August 2014 police shooting of a black man in his hometown that ignited a sustained controversy over police treatment of people in the black community. “Seeing some of my cousins out there, some of my little brothers of color out there, throwing tear gas at the cops and yelling, and standing in the cops faces and yelling, I was actually one of the people to say, ‘Stop it. Your life is not worth it. Someone has already died.’”
Anderson finds himself in a similar situation on stage playing Booker T. Washington, a prominent black leader at the turn of the 20th century, in the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of “Ragtime,” which plays Thursday through next Sunday at UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts. Like Anderson, Washington is working to bring calm to a racially charged moment in history in the story of several communities colliding in early 20th century New York. In the play, Washington strives to calm Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black man incited to violence by a series of injustices.
“This is very real, some of the things that are happening in ‘Ragtime’ just to things that were happening just 26 months ago,” Anderson says. “I try to take that energy that I was trying to talk to my brothers and sisters of color at home who were blasting their music, yelling, cussing, running out of businesses — who these businesses’ owners were also African-American. I’m trying to take that same heat and fire in my heart and tell them to stop before you’re shot coming out of the store. I’m trying to take that and transfer it to Coalhouse telling him, ‘There is a better tomorrow. Will we get there in our lifetime? Probably not. But there is a way. We have come so far.’
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“Where this was set, slavery was only over 50 years.”
Members of the cast and crew of “Ragtime,” feel they could be telling a story ripped from today’s headlines. Not only is there the story of racial injustice, but the show, based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, also addresses the struggle of immigrants and changing gender roles in society.
“The story takes place between 1902 and 1912, and what’s amazing is that every time I have done the piece — the first time I did it was 2002 — it has felt relevant and timely; it’s just one of those pieces that transcends time,” says Lyndy Franklin Smith, who is co-director of the show with her husband Jeromy Smith. “But specifically, in 2016, in this election year, in the midst of all of this chaotic time that we’re sort of living in, it feels like it’s hitting really close to home.”
Vocal coach Tedrin Blair Lindsay says, “There are lots of shows that are germane to public discourse, and this certainly is one of them. But when we say ‘ripped from the headlines,’ what we’re saying is this show directly addresses as its thematic material issues such as racism and xenophobia and the role of women in society; things we heard debated, last night,” he says, referring to Monday’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Producer Everett McCorvey says he was struck at a recent rehearsal when a black character is unjustly killed by authorities, and one of the people who first raised alarm about her exclaims, “I saw a gun,” echoing a claim in several recent police shootings, some just in the past month.
For a number of members of the cast and crew, the award-winning show has been a long time coming. McCorvey says it has been on his list of shows for UK Opera to do for six years, and it was about that long ago that Franklin Smith says she called McCorvey, before she became involved with UK Opera, and said if he did “Ragtime,” she wanted to direct.
“I’ve always been familiar with ‘Ragtime’ when I was younger and in high school,” says Zack Morris, who plays Tatah, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. “When I realized we were doing ‘Ragtime,’ and I had this role in mind for myself, all I could think about was the immigrant crisis in Europe, and what a responsibility this role could have to bring to light that issue as well.
“For me, personally, from the immigrant point of view, it is the Syrian, Middle Eastern immigrants that are trying to make better lives for themselves.”
Caught at the center of the story is Mother, played by Audrey Adams, the matriarch of a white Protestant family who, left in charge of family affairs while her husband is away on an expedition, must figure out how to respond to the cultural conflict and convergence around her.
“My character speaks to probably a lot of people from Kentucky — just the normal American family faced with these problems you just didn’t think were going to happen,” says Adams, who is from Louisville. “Then you have to choose: Are you going to be an upstander or a bystander. We’re trying to figure that out as a country too — Are we going to be upstanders or bystanders? — and watching a woman at that time, and so many other characters too, making that choice of how they are going to deal with the situations at hand, and there’s quite a bit of them.”
“It’s ultimately about everyone trying to find their own place and their own peace of what the American dream looks like to them and feels like to them,” says Ron Wilbur, who plays Coalhouse Walker Jr. “Each group goes on their own journey, and it is really gorgeous to see how that pans out.”
It is a show the cast and crew hopes will leave people thinking and talking.
Franklin Smith says, “It addresses issues that are super important to all of us in a way that I hope leaves us with a positive outlook on what we can achieve and what we can do.”
If you go
What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of the Tony Award-winning musical by playwright Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6-9, 2 p.m. Oct. 8
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall, 405 Rose St.