Going Back to Before
Opening Diamond Head Theatre’s 103rd season is Ragtime, a tour de force masterpiece which comes fresh off the massive success of summer’s The Little Mermaid. The theatre fulfilled its great ambitions to mount and present another show of high-caliber through a spectacle comprised of great direction, an affective score, and a cast incomparable to any other in recent memory.
Ragtime addresses the issues of racism, discrimination, and the seeking of the American Dream in the early twentieth century. Three classes of people and their stories are interwoven into a premise that first appears convoluted but becomes well-executed. From the get-go of the show, audiences are introduced to the privileged whites of New York’s society, the uprising of the black community hell-bent on breaking free from the barriers of racial oppression, and a crop of immigrants seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Central to each of these stories is Mother (a celestial Lea Woods Almanza who is slowly becoming a staple of the theatre), a woman who is torn between conforming to the standards of society, the expectations of her husband, and what is right and wrong; Coalhouse Walker Jr. (a magnificent Kent Overshown, guest artist), trying to establish his place in society while trying to reenter the lives of a former love, Sarah (a divine Lindsay Roberts, guest artist) and his infant son; and, Tateh (a powerful Eli K. M. Foster), a polish immigrant who will stop at nothing to provide his young daughter with a better life. Intertwined amongst these central characters are historical figures like Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and J.P. Morgan, demonstrating their swelling influence on society, while also shining a light on the unsung heroes whose stories were passed over throughout history: Emma Goldman (DHT regular Lisa Konove) and Evelyn Nesbit (newcomer Terrace Althouse).
Needless to say, Ragtime is imbued with a myriad of history and characters, but John Rampage, with his deft direction, finds the heart of the show through these characters, whose respective actors perform full-throttle to convey the hardships, struggles, and successes of living in the time when racism was slowly on the rise, eventually reaching its peak. Each actor strategically fulfills the emotional demands of his or her character, whether a white supremacist, a poor immigrant with aspirations, or a black person vying for equal opportunity. It is through the acting that the quintessence of the show’s soul and themes shine, and Rampage’s masterful directing reflects that. Furthermore, combined with powerful performances is expert musical direction from Phil Hidalgo who, along with the orchestra, provides a score that reaches the depths of both the actors’ and audiences’ souls. Two solos shine; that of Almanza who finally gets her shining moment, singing about how she wishes life were once as it was in “Back to Before,” and Roberts, who is potently affective in her rendition of “Your Daddy’s Son.” Both actresses glint and radiate amidst a cast imbued with powerful actors and performances.
What is presented within Ragtime also speaks volumes concomitant with modern-day society. It is apparent that the production aims to convey the fact that, despite it taking place in 1906, notions of racial disparity, prejudice, and divisiveness still occur. What’s more, it is not just in society; these themes seem to permeate the lives of many in ways unbeknownst. As a high school teacher, I just finished teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to my sophomores; Oscar-winning films like The Help; Fences; and 12 Years a Slave continue to fill silver screens across the nation; Tony-winning plays like The Color Purple address similar issues. And, Ragtime is just a semblance--a powerful one, no less--that continues to serve as a call to action to society.
Overall, Diamond Head Theatre’s 103rd-season opener Ragtime is a show that inspires, upsets, and tears at the heartstrings of audiences. It is through its ingenious acting, superior direction, and affective score that truly makes this show one to remember. There is no doubt you will leave the theatre talking about it and the impact it will have upon your life, no matter how small. It just opened and runs through October 15. 733-0274.