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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 27, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 43
Ragtime and The Crucible
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Ragtime and The Crucible

How theater brings historic content to current life by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

RAGTIME
THE 5TH AVENUE THEATRE
www.5thavenue.org
Through November 5

THE CRUCIBLE
ACT THEATRE
www.acttheatre.org
Through November 12


Seattle has a unique opportunity over the next two weeks to see two top-notch 'best theater' productions that not only are wonderful evenings of theater but exemplify the specific way that theater can provide political commentary through historic examples. With meticulous technical support and very large casts of some of Seattle's best, these productions demonstrate the power of theater to penetrate into people's feelings in a most unique art form.

The beautiful musical, Ragtime, at The 5th Avenue Theatre, tells us some history, both good and bad, of the turn of the 20th Century and the difficulty of melding gentrified whites, struggling blacks whose artistic innovation (Ragtime music) was being appropriated even as they were overtly treated as second-class citizens, and immigrants, many who were very poor Jews from Eastern Europe and Russian.

But their history is clearly also our current events! Ragtime shows a black man whose car is vandalized and who seeks justice from every regular form of law enforcement and municipal leader and is denied until he is so incensed that he commits a crime of his own as a form of civic rebellion. Not only do we see why he does it, we see and feel his outrage and are even made to confront both his grace and his failure.

Musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. is not created (by novelist E. L. Doctorow and then by book writer Terrence McNally and composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens) as a bad and evil man. He is a good man who loves his family and strives for success and is beaten down by prejudice at every turn. His search for justice becomes perverted and breaks him.

Ragtime also shows the hardships that immigrants faced at a time when there was no such thing as food stamps or welfare or almost any other social program, and people literally died of hunger if they could not find a way to make money. And Ragtime also shows how innovation and ideas could help people make themselves an outsized success, if they could stumble on a better way.

Ragtime also focuses on 'Mother,' who is supposed to represent ascendant White America Womanhood, the gentrified and subjugated woman figure who begins to question and slowly break free from her husband's commands. She doesn't have a name other than 'Mother.'

When her husband, 'Father,' goes on a long journey, Mother is suddenly in a position to start making decisions she has never had to make before, and those decisions change her and teach her what she believes, rather than what she has been told to believe. Here, then, is an example of where suffragettes came from, and upon which we can all ponder where we have arrived regarding women's roles in our society and how far we have yet to go.

Similarly, the Arthur Miller play, The Crucible, in a powerful production at ACT Theatre, is already an example of using history to make commentary on current events, because Miller, himself, wrote the play to exemplify the demonizing happening in 1953 with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, where the hunt for Communists was going strong. Miller used real events in 1692 and the Salem Witch Trials for his story, but mirrored the strong intention not to falsely confess with that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (executed June 19, 1953), who were still resolutely silent, when the play debuted, though both facing the electric chair and held in Sing Sing prison.

The play is based on mob mentality, fear of the unknown, and belief in authority figures, no matter how faulty those authorities might be. The fear of the occult and 'witches' of those more uneducated times is easily equated with the fear of the Communists, though the way that fear manifested in the United States was focused most on Jews and the Lower East Side of New York City, since the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, equated Jews with Communism as an obsession. Their witch-hunt demanded names with little proofs, and devastation to follow.

Now, we watch the same play and see parallels in the demonization of the media and the 'othering' of climate change and science in general in our own current events. The gathering together of clans and like-minded people into enclaves of belief systems that threaten our justice and our democracy. It might not be too far an assumption to believe that we could see trials of scientists, if we carry the cautionary tale to a logical conclusion.

Both companies employ acting talent of varied ethnicities, which speaks also to the continued evolution of broadened casting efforts that have become more and more normal in Seattle over the past five years. Ragtime demands a specific set of African-American actors in the script itself. The Crucible could be presumed to be written for a cast of all Caucasian actors, since historical accuracy might call for that, but the ACT production simply allows the casting to include 'minority' actors without regard to making sure that families are 'matched up.' Only one character in The Crucible was written to specifically be a Barbados 'native' and so a person-of-color.

Theatrical productions, live and immediate, touch audiences more deeply than many other forms of art. The opportunity to challenge audiences, allow them or encourage them to feel empathy or identification with characters they may not connect with in real life, and bringing understanding to the plight of folks very different from their own circle is what theater can do. Sometimes, that power is dispensed with in going after 'entertainment' value. But these two productions are examples of how theater can encourage change in a current society's attitudes for the betterment of our world.

Discuss your opinions with SGNcritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters. More articles can be found at MiryamsTheaterMusings.blogspot.com.

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Glorious Ragtime a must-see musical!
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Ragtime and The Crucible
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