125 Ragtime and Racial Identity

Zoë Kay

Throughout this semester, I was a part of a production of a concert version of the musical Ragtime. The story of Ragtime consists of three story lines taking place in 1906; a white woman with desires to explore and fight stereotypical gender roles, an educated black musician who is wronged and takes revenge after the death of his fiancé, and an immigrant from Latvia who is looking for a better life for his young daughter. The big problem with this: not one of the students who auditioned and eventually was cast as any ethnic minority was actually part of that ethnic group. The most diversity the cast held was the young man playing Booker T Washington. He is one half Puerto Rican. This created some really interesting problems and discussion.

Coming into the process, our director Daniel Perkins knew that there would be questions and critics. To combat this, the chorus did extensive research on not only our own lineage and ancestors, but on the time period of the story and the extreme racism, violence, and devastation the people we were portraying combatted.

When I was cast as a black woman, a gospel singer who riffs and belts all through the Act 1 finale which just so happened to be a funeral, I have to admit I was a little freaked. I knew the notes, I loved the song, but the difference between authenticity and making a mockery out of a gospel at a black funeral was terrifying. The first day I sang in front of the chorus in rehearsal, people clapped and told me “you sound so black!!” or “wow it was like a real black person was here!!”. I was uncomfortable. I mean, yeah I tried to sound “black” I guess, but how does that sound? Was I being racist? Or was I doing the role justice? It was all kind of confusing. I ended up realizing that the whole concept of telling someone that they sound like another race, is in a way racist. In our community at Plymouth State, we do not see much racial diversity, thus creating an uneasy feeling for many students when forced to deal with racial issues or forced to see our subtle racism.

I was forced in this process to think about “blackness” and what it means to be black. I thought about Passing and read articles in the Rivkin and Ryan text. In The Social Construction of Race by Ian F. Hanley Lopez, I faced a question that I didn’t feel ready to come to a conclusion about. What makes a person a certain race? Is this biological or socially constructed? Obviously I was not attempting to convince people that I am black, but what makes a person black? I think this might be an unanswerable question. “There are no genetic characteristics possessed by all Blacks but not by non-Blacks” (R & R 967). Okay, so if that’s true than it must be socially constructed; the article even says “Race must be viewed as a social construction” (R &R 968). The whole issue got me very confused, just as it did when we discussed Passing and began to talk about identifying as a certain race. This article explains the idea of racial fabrication. This explains races being “constructed relationally, against one another, rather than in isolation” (R&R 969). That idea makes a lot of sense to me and I think I am beginning to understand racial development.  Either way, this is digressing from my original point.

This production of Ragtime may have been considered racist by some, but I do not believe it was. The significant thought and work into avoiding “blackface” or parody of an entire racial spectrum kept the production from any sort of racist tendencies.


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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Zoë Kay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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