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Ragtime and The Brother/Sister Plays Spin Black American History into Folk Tales


Drawn from E.L. Doctorow’s popular novel, the 1998 musical Ragtime, now getting its first New York revival (Neil Simon Theatre), deals with blacks confronting white America. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays, being given in repertory at the Public Theater, deals wholly with black Americans. Both works are fables of life in modern industrial America, cast in folk-tale terms.

Both are steeped in music; both employ story-theater-style narration, building a theatrical tension between storytelling and dialogue. Both, too, identify their characters as type figures. McCraney’s are perceived as avatars of the African gods whose names they bear: Ogun, Shango, Elegba. Ragtime‘s people get their names from their familial roles (Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother) or as icons in memory’s historical waxworks (Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington). Even Ragtime‘s two most individualized characters, the (fictional) great ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker and his unhappy lover, Sarah, turn out to have literary prototypes: They were borrowed by Doctorow from Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 novella, Michael Kohlhaas, in which the embittered hero turns rebel, and his neglected wife dies, under circumstances paralleling those in Ragtime.

Obviously, the mixture of elements in such works, while never quite coalescing, gives them an exceptional density. In their differing ways, both Ragtime and The Brother/Sister Plays are rich, flavorsome experiences. Even when the story runs thin, as in the long first part of McCraney’s work, or when its meanings seem to turn flat and oversimplified, as happens late in Ragtime, you never feel like you’ve been shortchanged: Something else is always being evoked, supplying the aesthetic equivalent of moral support.

Ragtime, which hurtles its black characters into the wide and dangerously prejudiced world of the larger society, is a chunk of “our” history, a staged chapter of the allegorical narrative that tells how America became what it is. McCraney’s trilogy, which prefers delving into the characters’ psychology, scarcely touching the wider world at all, is a set of chapters in the ongoing lives of a black community on the Louisiana bayou. Ragtime‘s point, if it can be reduced to one, is how contact with other communities alters our sense of our own: “We can never go back to before.” McCraney’s, conversely, seems to be the Jungian notion that community is destiny: The collective unconscious is always at work, making the same types recur in each generation.

Both points are true, partially. The challenge, with both works, is to get us past the dry patches where the truth runs out into the vibrant places where it thrives. Both do this, on the whole, rather well. Ragtime‘s shortcomings have been much debated since its disappointing initial run. What’s less well remembered, which Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s new production successfully arouses, is the sense it gives of being in that musical heaven where the artists do everything right. About half the Ahrens-Flaherty score comes into this category. Dodge’s production—barer, starker, and smaller than Frank Galati’s original—enhances the work’s tautness by linking its criss-crossed stories more sharply, and pushing for heightened tensions in Terrence McNally’s book, which, as a result, seems less mild-mannered than it did, less of a problem-solving task in adaptation and more of a drama.

That approach has dangers attached. Push, and you sometimes get coarser results; tighten, and you put extra pressure on the weak links. The 1998 production’s four leads were unsurpassable. Dodge’s four, Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse), Christiane Noll (Mother), Robert Petkoff (Tateh), and Stephanie Umoh (Sarah), make only a handsome stab at equaling them, with Darrington coming closest. On the plus side, Dodge offers a more convincing Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), and scores a memorable interpretive triumph with Bobby Steggert’s performance as Younger Brother. But pushing badly coarsens some of the secondary performances, while the tautening shows up the authors’ perfunctory treatment of Father, despite Ron Bohmer’s efforts to make more of him. Like the straight lines of Dodge’s lucid but slightly rigid staging, the production’s moral lines of good and bad are sometimes too simplistically drawn.

Nothing is so simple in McCraney’s works, where ancient gods and last night’s dreams keep drifting into and out of the action, and the characters’ dialogue tracks, with hairbreadth precision, into and out of self-narration. The constant repetition of data that results can get maddening, but it can also be used for subtle effects. Both Tina Landau, staging Part 1, and Robert O’Hara, directing the double bill of Parts 2 and 3, use it so: One remarkable aspect of the event is its unity of style. Only Landau’s imagistic use of background figures, and the intentionally harsher sound effects in O’Hara’s double bill, differentiate the two stagings. And, although much in both is shoutingly overplayed, whenever the story turns serious, the acting turns transcendent. Marc Damon Johnson, evolving from the stammering adolescent of Part 1 to the weary, grieving oldster of Part 3, acquires breathtaking stature.

Part 1 suffers from bait-and-switch dramaturgy: Oya (Kianne Muschett) is a youthful track star who rejects an athletic scholarship to “State” in order to stay with her dying mother (Heather Alicia Simms). After the latter’s death, nothing is said about any desire on Oya’s part to make a life for herself; the story narrows to a matter of which of two men she loves, and then to her desperation, climaxing in a desperate act, when she finds herself unable to have a baby. As in Lorca’s Yerma, which McCraney’s play sometimes resembles, the obsession seems to leave the central character behind.

The shorter Parts 2 and 3, building on figures established in Part 1, actually contain greater substance, and McCraney’s writing feels far more assured. A fierce conflict between brothers in one finds unexpected closure through the sexual dilemmas of an unrelated young man in the other. Sensibly, McCraney offers no simple answers; he lays out the complex situation fully and leaves the audience to sort through it.

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