Theatre Tuscaloosa to present 'Ragtime' starting this week

Dylan Davis found out he would have to hang upside down over the stage while singing just a few weeks after he landed the role of Harry Houdini in Theatre Tuscaloosa’s production of “Ragtime.” 

“For a while it was just like watching a child play on the monkey bars for the first time,” Davis, a junior musical theatre major at UA said. “I was trying to get up there and get comfortable with the whole mechanism that they have me going up with but it just took practice. Now I just get up there and just drop down like nobody's business.” 

Based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow, “Ragtime” follows the lives of three fictional characters as they interact with history in the early 1900s. There’s Mother, the nameless matriarch of a generic upper middle-class white family in New Rochelle, New York, Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician and Tateh, a Jewish immigrant for Latvia who comes to America with his daughter.  

Harry Houdini is just one of the real historical figures woven into the narrative along with Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and others. For Davis and other cast members who are portraying characters with real-life counterparts, the process of fleshing out their characters was a bit different from some of their other cast members. 

“I've read so many different articles just trying to find every little wealth of information I could find about his home life, his work life, how he acted around his close friends compared to everyone else, to try to breathe life into this person that existed,” Davis said. “I have to provide the closest resemblance that I can to him and not mess up.”

For other actors in the show, like John Walker, there was a little more freedom in creating their characters because they didn’t have a historical figure to try and stay true to. Walker plays Younger Brother, the nameless sibling of Mother. The point of the nameless family, Walker said, is so that the characters can stand in for anyone of affluence or privilege during that time period. 

“They just made us generic enough to fit in with all these historical characters inside this production that we were able to interact without changing or making any sort of historical event that did not happen,” Walker said. “So we were able to build around these historical characters with rich histories and we were able to kind of add something based on the stereotypes of that time”

Walker said he sees himself as more of a comedic actor, so taking on a drama like “Ragtime” provided a new set of challenges for him. The process of pulling a laugh of a crowd, he said, is much easier than saying a line in just the right way as to tug on their heartstrings. 

“It's putting the inflection on the word to make sure that you're striking that cord in somebody's heart and they can pull out a feeling that they may not be comfortable with and that's the theater,” he said. “You're trying to make people face something that they may not be willing to face in the broad daylight. If you put them in here everybody's going to go to somewhere where they may not necessarily go out there in the sun but in here they'll have that thought or build that connection.”

Director Tina Turley said that when it came to mixing the purely fictional characters with historical figures, she approached the characters in mostly the same way. 

“You get to do research and figure out how you can pull the essence without fully trying to mimic it because you know you can't exactly match their personalities up but you can do the best you can and then you mix it in with made-up people,” she said. “Characters are characters whether they're real or fictional and you try to flesh them out as best as possible I don't think either one of them were any more difficult than the other it was just a little more easier to visualize the ones who are real people.”

Turley, who’s also a producer for Theatre Tuscaloosa said she picked “Ragtime” for this summer’s play because she thought it had things to say that needed to be heard. It’s a sentiment that other cast members like David Cordell, who plays Tateh agree with. 

“The whole theme is about how we treat one another and with all the craziness that's going on in the world, everybody always thinks it's their time that that is the most crazy when really it's just the world is crazy and has been for a while,” Cordell said. “We learn about ourselves through shows like this, and if it weren't for shows like this to make people sit back and enjoy get slapped in the face with reality when it comes down to it, then we wouldn't learn.” 

Theatre Tuscaloosa will present “Ragtime” July 14 - 23 at the Bean Brown Theatre on Shelton State Community College’s campus. There will be performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday night as well as 2 p.m. performances on Sundays, Wednesday July 19 and Saturday July 22. This Thursday night’s performance will be a pay-what-you-can dress rehearsal. Tickets are $22 for adults, $18 for seniors and military members and $14 for students. 

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