Two months ago I believed that Ragtime was not your every day kick-ball-change musical, drowning in sequins and the clatter of character shoes. I believed that Ragtime had a message to communicate, and that it was a message that the Duke community needed to hear, and would be bowled over when they heard it. Two months into rehearsal, I still believe that this show has a message to spread. I’m just not sure it’s one that the Duke community will benefit from hearing. I have to question what a community which already finds itself in a less-than-perfect position regarding racial segregation will take from a musical which defines a clear white antagonist and black protagonist, and consequentially highlights the tensions behind racial disparity in America. I’m not American, and therefore have little emotional investment in the subject matter of the show: I have never been part of a “WASP”society, I have not fled from my country, though many have, and I am not black. This doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the sensitive nature of the issues that Ragtime attempts to address head-on. Thirty-two years ago, a bloody war between white and black came to an end in my country, and we came out an independent nation. Both white and black came out battered, bloodied and victims of a horrific struggle for sovereignty. At that point, it was expected that white people would evacuate the country, which admittedly many did. My family was one of those who decided to stay, and this is the only time I can ever say thank you to Robert Mugabe, because it was his inauguration speech that kept us in Zimbabwe. I was born as part of the Born Free generation – the first generation of Zimbabweans who would be freed of the weight that the colour of our skin carried. The first colour-blind children. Today, there is very little racial segregation in Zimbabwe, and any hatred between black and white is preached and ignored by our now-senile president. This is because my generation looks to the future without staring in the rear-view mirror. The younger generation of Americans has not been able to achieve this peace. From what I’ve learned from talking to many people, black and white alike, the anger and confusion between the two races runs deep and is only just beginning to heal. The Slave Trade was abolished in 1833, though it didn’t officially end until 40 years later. The only reference made towards the slave ships is swiftly dismissed by Admiral Perry, and the issue is never discussed again, though the anger of the past is what dictates the narrative of the story. It is largely the frustration and pain that comes with being part of an oppressed minority that drives Coalhouse to recklessly grapple for control of his destiny and the destiny of his comrades.
The very nature of the set dissects the American population into race and class. The physical separation of colour onstage hammers the message of ‘white versus black’ home with a flamboyant twirl of a parasol. Ragtime offers a character resolution that can be found in the ghosts of Coalhouse and Sarah, and the enlightened romance between Mother and Tateh. Brother’s escape to Mexico and the founding of the Booker T. Washington Tuskeegee Institute provide a satisfying resolution in terms of the individual character arcs presented in the show, but provide no solid direction or outcome for the resolution of the racial issues that drive the play. Coalhouse’s lament encourages the black men by his side to continue spreading the word of their community peacefully, and, as he sings, to “Make Them Hear You”, and is promptly shot, destroying the possibility of peaceful resolution, and taking us back to the smashing of the Model T and the killing of Sarah. We are taken back to square one, and we stare back into the rear-view mirror, which reflects a past of hatred, pain and fear. It seems that Booker T Washington is the only character who is working to build a peaceful future for black and white Americans.
My question is this: is Ragtime a show which will add constructively to the dialogue surrounding race in the Duke community, or is it just another reflection in the rear-view mirror of American history that will serve to perpetuate the tension between black and white?