The Stage: Ragtime on Ellis Island’s emotive power shows value of theatre beyond walls

August 12th, 2016 § 0 comments

Walking through Covent Garden, I always imagine a site-specific production of My Fair Lady (or Pygmalion), with the opening scene played out on the very ground where it was first conceived to occur. This same flight of fancy has always held for me as well when I visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and dream of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin singing in the building where the musical 1776 is set and key moments in American history took place.

So when I received a press release about a concert of the musical Ragtime to be held on Ellis Island, the first stop for some 12 million immigrants to the US in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, I couldn’t scramble fast enough to secure a ticket.

I didn’t stop to fuss over who was producing, directing or performing, I just wanted to be there. I’ve been a great fan of the Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Terrence McNally show since I first heard the original recording. My affection was reinforced when the show landed in New York. The novel on which it’s based, by E.L. Doctorow, is also a favourite; I read it when it was new, while I was in my teens.

As it happens, the production was the vision of a 22-year-old tyro director named Sammi Cannold, heretofore unknown to me. She had apparently made a splash in California directing a site-specific production of the musical Violet on a bus while in college. She’ll repeat the production next year at Massachusetts’ American Repertory Theater.

Cannold’s concert was designed as a test run for a possible full production of Ragtime on Ellis Island. Held in the Registry Room for an audience of some 450 people, it featured a good-sized cast led by Laura Michelle Kelly and Brandon Victor Dixon, with narration and anecdotes from Brian Stokes Mitchell, who created the role of Coalhouse Walker on Broadway.

Perhaps a dozen songs from the expansive score were performed. Despite its relative brevity, the logistics must have been a challenge, since every element had to be brought to the island by ferry, including the audience.

Unlike my imagined My Fair Lady and 1776 productions, Ragtime had a particular resonance for me beyond the obvious historical link: all four of my grandparents came to America through Ellis Island. I watched this fictional story, which could have been that of my own forbears, unfolding in a building that I knew they had walked through, three leaving Tsarist Russia, a fourth having come from Marseille.

I never knew the specifics of their voyages – my parents, now deceased, never told me any details, my maternal grandparents died when I was an infant, and my father’s parents were taciturn and stern, never given to saying any more than absolutely necessary.

Monday’s water voyage to Ellis Island was vastly shorter than that of those arriving by boat more than 100 years ago, but the verisimilitude of approaching by water, of watching the Statue of Liberty loom ever larger, brought site-specific and slightly immersive work to a whole new level. Even without the book scenes acted out, I found myself moved to tears at one point by the confluence of art and history, and had a sense of being closer to my grandparents than I ever was in their lifetimes.

Of course, Ragtime is not the story of a single family of Eastern European immigrants, but also the story of black Americans and white Americans, their lives intertwined by fate, racism and forgiveness.

At a time when our Republican presidential nominee and the Brexiteers want to close borders to immigrants, Ragtime is a vivid reminder that immigrants and migrants are essential parts of the story of almost every country, even if the musical doesn’t represent every race. While its message will likely be evergreen and surely pertinent should a full production be realised, its resonance in 2016, even in a suite of songs, is impossible to miss.

As someone who has not travelled a great deal internationally, I have always said that it is the theatre that has taken me to places I’ve never been, in addition to being a time machine that has taken me to eras other than this one. Ragtime on Ellis Island was, for me, a singular experience in a lifetime of theatregoing as a result of the convergence of the show, the place and my own heritage.

But with 12 million immigrants having passed through its doors, I am surely not alone, as a second-generation American, in appreciating its hold. Ragtime on Ellis Island is a terrific argument for more theatre happening outside of theatres, in places where the stories truly or imaginatively took place, making the case both for the value of art and emphasising the humanity and truth that lies within art, merging invention and reality far from any proscenium.


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