Ragtime has always seemed important to me. Not only is it well written with an outstanding score, but it’s always seemed relevant. There are characters ranging in age, gender, cultural background, socioeconomic status, and belief, and that means there is something for everyone in this show. As a teenage activist, I related to Mother’s Younger Brother, a young man who finds he wants to make a difference in the world by use of any means.
With this week’s occurrences in Ferguson and the repercussions across the country, I find myself thinking of Ragtime and how sickened I am by that. Ragtime takes place in the first decade of the twentieth century. Why are racial events paralleling this story after the hundred years of peaceful protest and political change? Why are the lyrics to Till We Reach That Day bone chillingly relevant? Ragtime SHOULD be a period piece, and yet, if they changed some circumstances, Ragtime is contemporary.
I’m going to explore the story of several characters in Ragtime, so it goes without saying that there will be spoilers ahead.
For those not in the know, Ragtime starts in 1902 and tells the story of three families: An upperclass Caucasian family (Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, Edgar, and Grandfather), a Jewish immigrant (Tateh) and his daughter, and an African-American couple with an infant son (Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah, and Coalhouse III). There are side stories of famous people such as Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington, and all of the characters’ stories intersect throughout the play.
Coalhouse decides that as a free man, he’s going to use his earned money to buy a car in order to win Sarah back. Well in New Rochelle a black man driving a car is no good. Coalhouse ends up having to abandon his car to get police help only to return sans police to find his car had been trashed by the New Rochelle firemen.
Sickened by this, Coalhouse pursues justice only to get turned away from every legal office he goes to. (One lawyer tells Coalhouse he can’t waste his time on a case of vandalism because “he has real injustices” to deal with.) Coalhouse is so fixated on getting justice, he puts his life on hold, forcing Sarah to also get involved.
Here’s the big spoiler: Sarah goes to a rally on Coalhouse’s behalf to speak to the President. Sarah gives a moving speech about how proud she is of Coalhouse that ends with, “and Coalhouse, he won’t marry me until this thing is done. And President, we got a son.” Security does not hear “son” and responds as if they had heard the word “gun.” Sarah is brutally beat and shot to death.
While this is a piece of fiction, it is important because didn’t almost this exact same thing just occur? In the twenty first century, there have been two famous cases of this exact same thing. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were both murder victims because of a racist person making assumptions.
After Sarah’s death, the characters immediately switch into a scene showing Sarah’s funeral, and I found that the song they sing that I reference in my title was what was stuck in my head Monday night after the decision was made. The most poignant lyrics are at the very end of the song.
Why does nobody care? There is blood in the air! We have voices and souls! What is wrong with this country? She was somebody’s child! There are Negroes out there! There are people out there! Give the people, A day of peace. A day of pride. A day of justice. We have been denied. Let the new day dawn, Oh, Lord, I pray… We’ll never get to heaven, Till we reach that day.
I love these lyrics because all these groups of people have come together to support Coalhouse in his time of need, and Sarah’s friends are angry a “negro” was killed and are then corrected. A person was killed. It doesn’t matter what color her skin was, she was a human being.
Act two is all about Coalhouse, in his anger, having become a terrorist. All he wanted was justice and it cost him his love. Coalhouse develops a following of young men who believe his violent way is the right way to get justice until at the very end of the play, Coalhouse takes a famous library hostage and fills it with explosives. His demand is that the man responsible for trashing his car be prosecuted.
When Coalhouse realizes that this is the end of his fight, no matter the outcome, he has a moment of clarity where he realizes whether he was right or wrong in his tactics, he needed to set a good example for his son and end the fight with dignity. What I’ve always found interesting is that the audience never actually sees Coalhouse kill any of the men. We’re told through another character reading a newspaper article. I feel like this helps people stay sympathetic to Coalhouse throughout the show. Right before Coalhouse surrenders, he sings a song to his men that also rings true right now, Make Them Hear You. Again, the show slaps 2014 America in the face.
Your sword can be a sermon, Or the power of the pen. Teach every child to raise his voice, And then, my brothers, then, Will justice be demanded, By ten million righteous men.
People in Ferguson are not all protesting peacefully. A whole bunch of people chose to trash cop cars and become violent. While this does attract attention, is it the right kind of attention? I don’t think so.
I believe in Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s words. I believe we need to be heard. And if we keep speaking and teaching and learning what is right, it may take a little longer, but we can “reach that day.” In fiction and in real life, I am sickened by the police shooting to kill anyone in a country that prides itself on its justice system. Many protestors are finding solace in Mockingjay’s “we burn with you” slogan, but I really feel it’s Sarah and Coalhouse we should be looking to for help. Fiction is there to teach us. It plays out uncomfortable scenarios in a safe setting and allows us to see them played out. Well this scenario has been played out, and I’m afraid for our society if people keep reacting violently in the face of violent injustices.