Of ‘Rags’ and Richies: ‘Ragtime’ at Berkeley Playhouse


“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. [..] They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
– Donald Trump, presidential announcement speech, 16 June 2015

There’s a photo that’s been around almost as long as the Internet itself. It features a photo of Native Americans holding rifles with the text “Homeland Security” above them. Below them it reads “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492”. Whenever I see this image, it still gets a chuckle out of me. Though my family tree reveals Dakota Tribe heritage on my father’s side, I’m in no position to make a claim as a native. No, my ancestors weren’t Vito Corleone – which is to say they didn’t have a choice in coming to this land by boat.

That doesn’t negate the experiences of those who did make the journey by choice only to face their own discrimination – Jews, Italians, Irish, to name but a few – but both the colonization of this land and its upward mobility were built on the back of people who didn’t look like “real Americans”. One’s accent can vanish over time; one’s complexion is an entirely different story.

And that’s the story EL Doctorow wanted to tell with his 1975 novel Ragtime. Much like Michael Cimino’s notorious film Heaven’s Gate, Doctorow’s novel recounts the birth of America not as a series of document-signings by men in powdered wigs, but rather by the sweat on the brows of immigrants who travelled to this country like pilgrims to a promised land. Upon arriving, they quickly learn that – as the 19th century saying goes – the streets aren’t paved with gold and that they would have to pave them; all for the benefit of rich men with cigars who have never known a day’s hardship.

In a time when the terms “immigrant bans” and “shithole countries” are now common vernacular (from the lips of the Fat Cat-in-Chief, no less), Doctorow’s story is just as relevant on the Berkeley Playhouse stage as it was in the pages of his novel. Unfortunately, truncating such a grand epic into a (relatively) short dramatization means some things will get the short end of the stick.

Ragtime at Berkeley Playhouse - set

Set by Kirsten Royston. Photo (clumsily) taken by me.

The place is New York and the time is the early 20th century. A young White boy named Edgar lives with his family in the affluent neighborhood of New Rochelle. They are afforded every advantage of this “land of the free, home of the brave.” But the world – nay, America – is more than New Rochelle. There’s the world of rich barons like JP Morgan. There’s the performance space of Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit. There’s the bustling world of Harlem, where talented performers can’t even walk through the front door of the venues they play. And there’s the “ragship” world of a new crop of immigrants arriving at the shores.

All the same America, yet all so different. It doesn’t take much for these vastly different worlds to eventually collide. When that happens, it exposes the “American Dream” for the illusion it was all along.

Very rarely do people think of books in terms of time. Page count, maybe; scope, definitely; but time is a relative idea. The great thing about literature is that one reads at their own pace, so where one person can get through War and Peace in under two weeks, another struggles for years to get past the first chapter of The Great Gatsby. Dramatists aren’t afforded that luxury. There’s an old quote – often attributed to Hitchcock, but no one has found the source – saying “the length of a film should be directly proportional to the size of the human bladder”. You can take your time flipping pages; but when you have actors living as characters, then the clock is ticking.

This is where Terrence McNally’s stage book for Ragtime falls short: it tries to suffocate a story that needs room to breathe. As such, you have historical figures like the aforementioned Nesbit and Houdini introduced as if they’re going to be crucial characters, only to be completely forgotten until they suddenly pop up randomly in the second act. Activists Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman take more active roles in the narrative – as does JP Morgan – but all of these familiar names amount to little more than glorified cameos.

Even members of the central cast occasionally get shortchanged, with Jewish immigrant Tateh transforming from beggar to film auteur seemingly overnight. Though the era is made clear, the actual passage of time is harder to pin down. The script isn’t bad, just overstuffed. Though bolstered by excellent songs from composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime is a story made more for a mini-series than a 2 ½-hour musical.

But where the script struggles under the weight of the story, this Berkeley Playhouse production thrives under the direction of William Hodgson. An actor in his own right, Hodgson is associate Artistic Director of Ubuntu Theatre, where the productions are relatively bare. Here, Hodgson and his crew make full use of the Playhouse’s resources to make the story visually compelling, even when the script seems to lose focus.

And he has an excellent hand when dealing with his cast. Though great all around, there are still some standouts. The first of whom is Mindy Lym as “Mother”. She brings soul to Mother, even when saying the world’s most ridiculous dialogue upon finding a baby in a bucket. The world and her husband want her to be nothing more than a housewife, but she can’t help but be so much more. Though both are relegated to smaller roles, Playhouse veterans Matt Davis and Jessica Coker can’t help but command the stage when they appear. I found Mischa Stephens’ “Tateh” to be a bit too over-the-top for my taste, with his dial seemingly set at “10” with every line.

Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention Marissa Rudd and Dave J. Abrams as Sarah and Coalhouse, respectively. Both Playhouse veterans, they each delivered show-stopping performances in their former plays (Tarzan for Rudd, Sister Act for Abrams) and continue the tradition here. Rudd is a heartbreaking actress with a powerful voice that can take down the house. Abrams is the sort of triple-threat performer one doesn’t see much these days. Watching them in this show not only showcases two incredibly talented performers, but shines a light on Black America in a way often forgotten.

As for the tech side: sometimes I think I show up at Berkeley Playhouse shows just to see what the set will look like. (That, and the pizza.) Kirsten Royston’s contribution is a fine addition to that tradition, transforming from gazebo to mansion to factory with the greatest of ease. Bo Tindell’s lights and Adeline Smith’s paints compliment the designs perfectly. Lyle Barrere once again creates a soundscape that is enveloping without being overwhelming, and Lisa Danz is to be envied for the intricacies of the costumes on display. All of it accompanied by the fine musical direction of Daniel Feyer. As usual, great work from the Playhouse.

The classic NY-based tv series Naked City opened with the classic line “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” Where Ragtime falls short is in trying to tell them all. No matter how compelling they all may be (and they are), they can’t all be told at once. Though the script is overstuffed, an excellent songbook, fantastic performances, and top-notch production values make Berkeley Playhouse’s production worth the trip.


Ragtime is scheduled to run until the 18th of March at the Julia Morgan Theatre in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Categories: Theatre

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