Ragtime as Resistance

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Ragtime was riveting, authentic, and relevant, carried by performers’ vocal fortitude and the show’s thematic significance. In a political climate that seems to condone overt systematic violence, Ragtime – presented at Dinkelspiel Auditorium by Stanford BLACKstage, Stanford Light Opera Company, and the Stanford University Department of Music – challenged complacency and urged both an acknowledgment of human interconnectedness and a fight against injustice and its invisibilization. Producers Adriana Ganem, Elijah Williams, and Samantha Williams (’17) were inspired to revive BLACKstage, a student theatre group dedicated to high-caliber storytelling that is community-oriented, race-conscious, and collective, after their initial vision for the production was rejected by two on-campus theatre groups.

Some technical elements of the show (particularly costuming, set design, and lighting) felt lackluster, but their failure was less a result of lack of talent and more due to the scale of the venue or a lack of infrastructural artistic support. Nevertheless, Nicole Phillips’s (’18) direction and Jace Casey’s (’17) choreography were clean and powerful, allowing emotion and concepts to read across simple, symbolic movement and blocking. The staging of immigrants entering the U.S. evoked contemporary images of TSA checkpoints and airport detainment; a dance number featuring Rosie the Riveter-esque workers took place below a bellowing Henry Ford, highlighting the selective machination of bodies and invisibilized human labor within capitalist industry; the semi-stylized staging (including, in these specific moments, effectively jarring light and sound design from Keenan Molner (coterm) and Dan Holland (’19)) of police brutality and racialized violence against Sarah and Coalhouse was staggering in its realness. Almost every line and move within Ragtime interrogated what it is to have a place in the U.S. – to be “successful,” to be protected and valued, to be allowed to survive.

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The orchestra, and music director Alexander Ronneburg (’17), performed Stephen Flaherty’s music with cohesion and strength. Working in tandem with the orchestra, powerhouse singers abounded – Jelani Munroe (alum.) delivered a powerful vocal performance as Coalhouse, particularly in his closing number, “Make Them Hear You,” and Morgan-Me’Lyn Grant (’20) sang an exceptional solo. Jackie Emerson’s (’17) breakdown of Evelyn Nesbit’s performativity was brilliant, Lianna Holston’s (’18) comic timing never failed to delight, and Tyler Groshong and Kate Cornyn were stellar as Little Boy and Little Girl. The entire ensemble committed to the production with energy and talent. Their work as a unit evoked both enthusiasm and empathy from the audience and more than compensated for the occasional lack of polish or abrupt scene and character shifts.

Three of the lead actors never failed to blow me away, each inhabiting characters with different experiences of the American dream – Chloe Wintersteen (’20), Miles Petrie (’19), and Samantha Williams (’17). As Mother, Wintersteen was stunning, intelligent, and strong through every note and step; as Tateh, Petrie demonstrated unrivaled charisma, genuine presence, and commitment to physicality and voice; as Sarah, Williams had me crying before I knew what was happening at least three times with her jaw-dropping vocal power and earnest portrayal of doubt, hope, and resilience. The strength of these performances in particular allowed Ragtime’s message, a pushback against apathy and silence, and condemnation of the oppression and fracturing that results from imposed social categories and hierarchies, to shine through nuanced portrayals of a multitude of American realities.

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The director and producers intended for Ragtime to function as a call to action, utilizing theatre as a foundation for activism and community dialogue. Samantha Williams stated, “We have never needed Ragtime more than we do today,” and Stanford is lucky this group of artists fought so long for this show here and now. At a university that is privileged in many ways, where proclamations of “allyship” and the uncritical sharing of a social media post can masquerade as activism, and in a nation that continues to profit on the explicit propagation of inequality, it is imperative to consider Ragtime as exactly what it set out to be, a call to action.  As the team behind this production has worked tirelessly to help demonstrate, our positions within this institution and our access to resources that facilitate community-driven storytelling can be mobilized in the collective pursuit of healing and justice. When, like in Ragtime, we experience day after day of justice being denied, we do not have to be complacent or silent. Voice and resistance emerge in many forms, from taking to the streets or the courts or the phone banks, to taking care of ourselves and our communities, to putting up a musical. To quote Coalhouse,

Teach every child to raise his voice

And then, my brothers, then

Will justice be demanded

By ten million righteous men.

Make them hear you.

This production of Ragtime spoke volumes, and I hope we listen.

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