Friday, January 17, 2003
Musical Ragtime celebrates diversity at CCHS
When teacher Chuck Brown suggested Ragtime for the spring 2003 musical at Concord-Carlisle High School, the general response was skeptical amazement. Typical comments included, "You're crazy, you're insane. Are you nuts?" recalls Brown, who teaches choral music and theater. Even the students, when informed of the choice fell silent, says Brown. Then came the hushed remark: "No way."
Students, colleagues and parents might be forgiven their initial reservations, due to the fact that Ragtime is a challenging musical requiring a strong multi-cultural cast, proposed for a school that is overwhelmingly white.
"Was I worried that I wouldn't be able to fill the parts? Absolutely," says Brown. But like the movie Field of Dreams and its assertion that "if you build it, they will come," Brown took a leap of faith and concluded, "If you create the opportunity, someone will come and fill it," he says.
And fill it they have. Even though Brown was prepared to look outside the school to cast such pivotal African-American roles as piano man Coalhouse Walker, CCHS junior Brian Gaines proved himself ready to tackle the challenge.
Gaines, his on-stage love interest Joliette Jean-Joseph (in the lead role of Sarah) and the majority of the "Harlem cast" members are Boston residents who participate in the METCO (Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunity) program. These students, who are predominantly black, Hispanic and Asian, are transported to Concord specifically to offset racial imbalances in both communities, while offering broader educational and social experiences for all involved.
Although Brown states that Ragtime was chosen for many reasons, including its strong choral music, plentiful dancing and powerful story, he adds that providing opportunities for the METCO students was one of the goals he had in mind.
"Last year, Chuck expressed a desire to involve more black students in musicals, a group that has been woefully under-subscribed," says CCHS history teacher Joseph Zellner, who is African-American and will play the role of Booker T. Washington in the musical. "I thought that showed a lot of forethought on his part."
The Ragtime story takes place in 1906 America and focuses on three different and distinct groups of people. There are the members of high society, the newly arrived immigrants (in particular a Jewish immigrant family), and the residents of Harlem. Intertwined in the story are turn-of-the-century events and celebrities, (including Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Houdini and J.P Morgan), and of course, plenty of fabulous ragtime music. Because the rights for Ragtime were just released to the public in September, CCHS will be one of the first high schools in the country to present the show. It is also interesting (and perhaps no coincidence) to note that Ragtime opened on Broadway on January 18, 1996 — Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.
"It's a period piece, an example of historical fiction," says Zellner. "I'm glad it tackles the issues it presents. It's a valid medium to learn history — through the arts."
Choosing Ragtime and celebrating diversity fits what has become a theme for theatrical productions this year at CCHS. In the fall, Brown directed students in The Laramie Project; a powerful and disturbing play based on interviews with townspeople in Laramie, Wyoming after the beating death of Matthew Shepard, a young homosexual man. CCHS administrators were so moved by The Laramie Project and its underlying message of tolerance and compassion that they agreed to suspend classes during one school day to allow all students and faculty to view the play.
No doubt Ragtime will also provide students and audiences with some valuable insight. "The portrayal of blacks [in the musical] is not politically correct for the 21
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito