Ragtime: A Fight for Social Justice

As cast members dressed in long, old-fashioned clothes and walked in a circle with slow, plodding steps, they made their way across the floor to the edge of the stage while singing “Till We Reach That Day,” a song about injustice and a hope for peace. Their voices projected out to the audience in a haunting and mournful tune, creating complex harmonies accompanied by occasional instrumental notes.

This scene concluded the first act of “Ragtime,” this year’s winter musical, and marked the first time that the characters of different races, backgrounds, and social classes shared the stage in the show. Performed on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in Steinbach Theatre, the musical was directed by Erin Strong, Instructor in Theatre and Dance, and Abbey Siegfried, Instructor in Music. The plot followed the stories of three groups of people at the beginning of the nineteenth century: African-Americans, European immigrants, and the white upper class.

“The whole show is really like a metaphor. There’s actually a lot of characters that don’t even have names; they’re just Mother and Father, and it’s really symbolic of society. The story that the show tells applies to the turn of the twentieth century, but I also think it applies to now. It’s really just telling the story of how people struggle and how they overcome those struggles, especially in terms of race and gender, so it just applies to life in general no matter the time period,” said Chi Igbokwe ’21, a member of the ensemble.

In one scene, European immigrants Tateh, played by John Moreland ’18, and his daughter Little Girl, played by Marianne Bautista ’20 interacted with members of the white upper class, Mother and Little Boy, played by Emma Chatson ’18 and Bianca Rodriguez-Pagano ’21, respectively. As Bautista and Rodriguez-Pagano playfully danced and leaped in the back of the stage, Moreland and Chatson’s characters sang optimistically of their children’s futures in America and of their different standings in society.

“[Moreland and Chatson’s characters sing] about how their children, even though they come from different places, are just so happy to exist and be together. It’s sort of like the idealist version of what humanity should be, and the song is really beautiful too,” said Anna Cambron ’18, who played Emma Goldman, a white activist who fought for immigrant rights.

The story of Ragtime is centered heavily around race and politics. The original Broadway version of the musical included racial slurs and violence, which were kept in Andover’s reproduction. While this decision was made partly due to legal reasons, the cast and crew worked together to present the terms in a thoughtful and purposeful manner.

“[The inclusion of these words] serves a purpose of why you understand and why certain characters react the way they do. We can’t erase that part of our country’s history. We can’t erase it. It is what it is. We present it not in a way of embracing it or endorsing it. We present it as this was our history, and we denounce it, and we see a different way forward,” said Strong.

These racial slurs were prominent in one scene that featured Rodriguez-Pagano and Sam Wright ’19, who played Rodriguez-Pagano’s father, sitting together on a set of bleachers and watching a baseball game. Surrounding them, a rowdy group of immigrants sang joyously, swearing and using foul language as they commented on the ongoing game. Rodriguez-Pagano’s character picked up on their behavior, parroting their dirty remarks and spitting on Wright. Wright, shocked that the game was unlike those he remembered from his days at Harvard, tried desperately to cover Rodriguez-Pagano’s mouth.

“[Wright] expects [the game] to be all nice and gentlemanly [and fancy] like when he played when he was at Harvard, but then it’s just this big rally crowd. It’s a bunch of [European] immigrant people. He comments that all the names of the players are Eastern European — not the way he wanted it to be — but it’s very funny because his son gets sucked up into the rally and has a good time, and the father is the only one not enjoying himself,” said Cambron.

Throughout the show, an American flag stood as a backdrop behind the actors and set pieces. The flag appeared to be tarnished, as opposed to a bright and clean image. The backdrop was made by students in Fall Term’s Theatre Basics class, instructed by Jacob Josef, Theatre and Dance Department Technical Director. According to Josef, the simple and worn-down characteristics of the flag allowed it to fit the multiple locations of the musical while simultaneously conveying the show’s theme of struggle and conflict.

“In the story of Ragtime, there’s so much conflict and resolution throughout the show, so we wanted the flag to look like it had seen just as many years as the people had, just to give it the sense that there are so many different states America has gone through, like stats and different types and periods of time… We wanted the flag to show the history of America and the grit that’s there,” said Josef.

In the final scene of the performance, the cast walked forward to the edge of the stage and joined hands as they sang “Make Them Hear You.” This final song reflected on the battles fought and the lessons learned by the characters throughout the show.

“It’s a really powerful message of making them hear you and the importance of hearing everyone’s story because that’s really the only way you can understand what’s going on in society: to listen to multiple perspectives and [hear] everyone’s story. The only way you can really get to know somebody is by hearing them tell their story. So that moment is probably my favorite because it really concludes the whole journey of the show,” said Strong.