Putting on Ragtime at Duke as one of the two Asians in the cast has been an interesting experience. Doing Ragtime at Duke at all is interesting, because of what Ragtime is, and what Duke is like. Ragtime is about race. It poses the questions, what does it mean to be black in America? How does a black man become successful- by going his own way and defying “white” stereotypes, or by behaving “well” and running the risk of acting too “white”? How easy is it actually for an immigrant to become financially successful in America? How easy is it for an immigrant to become socially integrated, socially successful, in America? How open-minded is America really? The same goes for Duke. Duke is a place where many races come together to learn and party and talk and make art, a “diverse” school. Duke is a politically correct school, where fraternities are bashed for putting on a Pilgrims and Indians party, where wonderful things like Common Ground happen that remind people of their sexual, financial, gendered and racial privilege. But it is also known for being racially self-segregated. Even as I look around the room during Ragtime rehearsal, friend groups are mostly racially homogenous. As an Asian, it is interesting to note that most of the other Asians are exclusively in the pit orchestra.
I want people to understand how important this musical is, what it’s trying to say. I did this musical once before, as a freshman in high school, and that time I put on pale makeup and played a well-to-do woman from New Rochelle. This time around I am being allowed to more or less play myself, as an Asian in the Harlem/Immigrant choruses. And as I look around the room through my own eyes I recognize my parents’ story, the immigrant story, in Tateh’s yearning for success, for his daughter’s future. I recognize myself (at the risk of sounding narcissistic, seeing myself everywhere) also in Coalhouse’s struggle with how to present himself such that he will be accepted in a white dominated world. I am not as familiar with the black American struggle for racial identity, but I know that the Asian American one has been full of pitfalls, and moreover it is newer.
I wonder if by putting on Ragtime, we are going with or against Duke culture. I would say that if cast and crew alike are able to become friends across cultural or racial barriers, that would be more like Tateh’s vision of a gang of kids, white, black, rich, poor, all running around together and getting in trouble together. But otherwise, we have a long ways to go before we reach that day… Ragtime at Duke is a brave endeavor, and I want people to understand that. Each of the characters is symbolic of a different American train of thought, whether that is Mother’s progressiveness (relatively, at least) Father’s fearfulness that the status quo is changing, or Tateh’s desire for belonging, or Emma Goldman and Younger Brother’s fight for justice and against privilege. Of course not everyone will endorse their character’s message, but I hope everyone will at least buy into the vision Ragtime presents, and the questions it forces us to see.