Child Actors Learn About Bigotry in a Big Wayby Pat Launer April 26, 2017
What’s the best way to teach young people about bigotry, intolerance and racism? According to J*Company artistic director Joey Landwehr, musical theater does the trick.
As he approached the 25th anniversary of the youth theater company in residence at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla, Landwehr thought that “Ragtime, School Edition” would be a perfect vehicle for life lessons. There’s an educational component to every J*Company production, and this one provides especially fertile ground for learning.
Based on the superb, award-winning 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, “Ragtime” brilliantly combines fictional and historical characters to present a sharp-edged microcosm of America. Doctorow focused on three parallel groups in early 20th century New York.
We meet wealthy WASP suburbanites in New Rochelle, specifically, Mother and her family, whose quiet complacence is severely jolted by interacting with an African American in Harlem: the imaginative, innovative ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. And then there are the Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh who, having brought his young daughter from Latvia, tries to make a better life using his artistic skills.
How their lives intertwine is the beauty (and tragedy) of the story, which also features Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and anarchist Emma Goldman.
It’s a rich, complex, heartbreaking and ultimately heart-warming tale, in which racist utterances and acts result in violence and death; and kindness and compassion lead to unexpected alliances and blended families.
The musical opened on Broadway in 1998 and ran for two years, garnering 13 Tony nominations and winning four awards, including Best Original Score (by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) and Best Book (by acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally).
The 1981 film was a poor, misguided shadow of the novel, but the musical beautifully captures the book’s essence – and its many Jewish characters (the Bronx-born Doctorow himself, who died in 2015, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants) from Goldman to Houdini to the fictional Tateh. The staunchly anti-Semitic Henry Ford also makes an appearance. And racist Irish firemen set off a horrible sequence of events that turns Coalhouse from a loving music-maker to an angry, vengeful criminal.
The School Edition, according to Landwehr, is “not much different from the original. A little truncated for time, with a decrease in some of the dance numbers. But it’s not dumbed down at all. All the content and scenes are included. It’s as intense as the original.”
As part of his educational approach to the piece, Joey made it clear from the outset that the rehearsal hall was to be a “safe space.”
“In this room,” he told his cast of 53 (small by J*Company standards), “we are tolerant of every race. We are slinging racial slurs and derogatory terms in this show, but they’re not directed toward any actor. Even though you’re calling people horrible, slanderous names, they need to know you love them.”
Joey has a highly diverse cast to work with. He had to initiate “significant outreach to schools in different areas” to fill the needs of the production. Still, not enough African Americans came out for auditions, so there are “lots of different colors” in the group, he admits, including Asian and Latino students.
Joey has required the cast to research the historical characters and participate in breakout discussions about the details of the lives of Jewish immigrants, Harlem residents and the rich white folks who kept their distance from those unlike themselves.
Every performer had to create an intricate, 12-page report on their character.
“They need to imagine everything from their favorite color to the kind of shoes they wear,” explains Joey. “They have to research either the real historical figure, or what a fictional character would be like in that period.”
His character analysis questions require the students to investigate or imagine, about the person’s posture habits and hobbies, favorite sayings, state of health, educational and family background, religious beliefs and harbored secrets.
For his production, Joey has slightly re-conceptualized the piece, approaching it as a group of players who happen to be putting on the musical “Ragtime.”
“Everyone is always onstage,” he explains. “They separate into the disparate groups as the show starts and come back together at the end. We’re not making any dialogue changes. Just making it approachable and safe.
“In the very beginning,” Joey continues, “before the overture, you see them all in half-light, so you don’t know what race they are. When we shed light, the audience sees the details and is likely to immediately make a judgment call. But if you break us down into electrons and protons, we’re all exactly the same.
“People are scared sometimes to challenge kids in this way,” Joey asserts. “But if you build it, they’ll step up to the plate. They grab the gauntlet and take up the challenge.”
This is one of the J*Company productions for older students, ages 10-19. Most in this cast are older than 13.
“I feel it’s part of my job to make sure they understand the history,” says Joey. “That Emma Goldman was fighting for women’s rights and workers’ rights. That Houdini was one of the most famous immigrants in America in 1906. That Booker T. Washington was talking about civil rights and African American equality long before Martin Luther King.”
Joey sometimes takes certain risks in casting. This time, Tateh is being played as what’s called a “pants role” or “trousers role.” That means that a female is playing a male character.
“It’s not what I was thinking,” says Joey. “I try not to pre-cast. And if Adira Rosen hadn’t auditioned, it would never have crossed my mind. But her acting is supreme. She will bring such beauty to that role.”
Mother will be played by Zoe Goldstein. Mother’s life repeatedly intersects with Tateh’s, and, says Joey, “the two young women already have a beautiful kinship and friendship.”
Coalhouse is portrayed by Mikel Lemoine, whose parents each have a Jewish mother and an African American father. Having appeared in many previous J*Company shows, he is, according to Joey, “a stunning performer.”
And Coalhouse’s main squeeze, Sarah, is enacted by Natasha Segui, who Joey says has “the best voice I’ve heard in 11 years.”
Part of the outreach and education component at the J*Company is a Random Acts of Culture night, a program implemented two years ago. This is a free Thursday performance for underserved populations.
And on May 20, Joey is taking the entire cast to Southeast San Diego, to perform a concert version of the show at O’Farrell Charter School in Encanto.
Joey has loved this musical since he first saw it on Broadway. And he’s been wanting to direct it since he took over the job at J*Company in 2006.
“In some ways,” he says, “this is the perfect time for this show, because of what’s happening in our nation right now. It’s important for us to remember that if we don’t understand and appreciate our history, we’re doomed to repeat it. ‘Ragtime’ does that brilliantly.
“In some ways, this show paints a version of America we don’t like to think about. But it paints without ripping America apart. From the very first chords, the hairs on your skin rise.
“One of my favorite parts of the show is how it all comes together at the end,” Landwehr continues. “This is the real America; an immigrant makes it big. A wealthy woman adopts an African American child and marries a Jewish immigrant. It doesn’t matter who you were. You can choose to create your own family, your own America.
He says that from this show, students are learning that it’s important to support every minority, and that theater arts has always been on the vanguard of that effort.
“We’re the first ones to reach over the divide – and we should be. Arts are the catalyst. Politicians keep cutting the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts], but we’re still here. We have a voice, and we need to use it.”
This summer, J*Company continues its third year of the Raw Reading series, one-night concert-style performances of big musicals.
They’ll start with Stephen Sondheim’s marvelous and complex “Sunday in the Park with George” (June 22), then offer the annual Mystery Flavor (“the kids don’t know what they’re auditioning for”) on July 13. That show will be followed by “Tick, Tick… Boom!” by Jonathan Larson (creator of “Rent”).
This year’s Alumni Parent Show will be “Chess,” written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of the pop group ABBA, (8/6). This one-night-only presentation will feature former J*Company students and alums and the parents of participants past and present. The whole production is put together in just 48 hours; the other Raw Readings have only one week of prep time.
For J*Company’s 25th anniversary season, Joey says he’s “pulling out all the stops.” His huge undertakings, beginning in the fall, include “The Lion King,” Les Miz,” “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” and, for the older students, “Hairspray.”
It’s going to be quite a year. But right now, all the focus is on the magnificent, deep, thought-provoking “Ragtime.”
“If this show doesn’t touch you,” says beloved director Joey Landwehr, “you just don’t have a soul.”
“Ragtime, School Edition” runs at the Lawrence Family JCC Garfield Theatre in La Jolla May 12-21. Tickets and information at (858) 362-1348 or lfjcc.org.