Pianists in 'Ragtime' and 'Green Book' make history

Ragtime-Ensemble-4-Photo-by-Nick-Agro-2.jpg"Ragtime" ensemble. Photo by Nick Agro.

Don Shirley is a lot more famous than he used to be.

No, I haven't started referring to myself in the third person. I'm writing about the late pianist Don Shirley. His renown is rapidly swelling, thanks to "Green Book," the movie that dramatizes a tour that the black Shirley and his initially racist white chauffeur took through the South in 1962.

greenbook-4.jpg"Green Book" (right) seems to be an audience-pleaser as well as an Oscar contender. But it has received some criticism for not being totally woke from a 2019 racial perspective. For example, the leading character is the chauffeur (Viggo Mortensen, nominated for the leading-actor Oscar), not Shirley (Mahershala Ali, a likelier Oscar winner, but in the supporting-actor category). Others have cited purported historical inaccuracies.

The movie has its African-American defenders. One of the most eloquent is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In an essay on "Green Book" in the Hollywood Reporter, he wrote that "unless they're making a documentary, filmmakers are history's interpreters, not its chroniclers. Green Book interprets the sea of historical events to reveal a truth relevant to today: Resist those who would tell you to know your place."

Abdul-Jabbar could have designated artists in general, not just "filmmakers." as "history's interpreters, not its chroniclers." The current Exhibit A for this in LA-area theater is "Ragtime," at the Pasadena Playhouse. This 1996 musical is an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel — in other words, most of its characters are fictional. Yet it masterfully interweaves many different strands of American history and culture in the first years of the 20th century into one powerfully cohesive narrative.

Most of the credit for that achievement belongs to librettist Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty. Veteran theatergoers in Los Angeles, which hosted the US premiere of "Ragtime" in 1997 at the late Shubert Theatre, should be at least somewhat familiar with the "Ragtime" contributions of Doctorow, McNally, Ahrens and Flaherty.

But David Lee's staging in Pasadena looks different from the original production. Although one apparent reason for this is because the Pasadena stage is smaller than the former Shubert stage, there is another rationale that you might miss if you don't read your program carefully. Near the bottom of the page that lists the actors and musicians, under "SETTING", are these words: "The present. The warehouse of a national historical museum."

And so the back of the stage, designed by Tom Buderwitz, is dominated by large cartons, under high, grimy windows. The cartons aren't pretty. But lurking within them are the characters who then jump out of history and move the story along, without needing a lot of specific scenic details.

Designating the time frame as "the present" shouldn't suggest that the characters wear modern dress. They're still wearing outfits that they would have worn more than a century ago. Instead, those two words emphasize the remarkable resonance of some of the script's lines within today's political climate.

In a scene at the New Rochelle train station, where the WASPy Mother (Shannon Warne) and her son meet the recently arrived Latvian Jew Tateh (Marc Ginsburg) and his daughter for the first time, Mother explains to her son why Tateh uses a rope like a leash to connect him to his daughter while traveling. "Immigrants are terrified of losing their children," she says. "So are we, but just not so conspicuously." I checked the original script to see if this might be a 2019 addition, in response to the recent border separations. But no, McNally wrote it for the original, more than two decades ago.

Several other lines, scenes and character arcs seem particularly well-suited to the current moment. After years of kowtowing to her husband, Mother finds her own voice in "Ragtime" and, near the end of the show, sings that she can never go "back to before." Does that sound familiar? Ask some of the 127 women who are now in Congress; make sure to include the four women senators who are running for president.

Still, during the curtain call, the final actor to take the stage — a honor that is usually reserved for whomever plays the leading character — is Clifton Duncan, playing Coalhouse Walker. Like Don Shirley, Coalhouse is a black pianist. Both Shirley and Coalhouse spend their lives looking closely at both the black keys and the white keys. Unlike Shirley, Coalhouse becomes a militant radical, as he reacts to the killing of his beloved Sarah (Bryce Charles) by a white policeman. In other words, he's woke decades before the word "woke" became woke.

"Ragtime" is, among other distinctions, a great way to observe Black History Month. Not surprisingly, it's hardly alone in the 2019 Black History Month sweepstakes, which occurs every February in LA theater.

Of the handful of current productions I've seen that have some relationship to black history, not one is clearly "documentary" theater. Instead, they display a wide range of vivid imaginations, "interpreting" instead of "chronicling" the historical events that inspired them.

"Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole," at Geffen Playhouse, interprets the 1957 demise of the singer's NBC television series as a chance to suggest that Cole's silky surface concealed intense stress and tangible bitterness about the racism that he faced. Not only did his series die for lack of a national sponsor due to corporate race-based fears, but Cole is required to use makeup to lighten his skin and to avoid getting too close to his guests, particularly the white women. We also hear references to an attack on his home in the previously all-white Hancock Park in 1948.

lightsout-main-lorch.jpgZonya Love as Perlina and Dulé Hill as Nat King Cole in "Lights Out: Nat 'King' Cole" at Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

Co-writers Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor (she also directed) concoct a fever dream of Cole's inner thoughts as he hosts the final episode of his series. That the final episode already includes song, dance and comedy means that this particular fever dream is much more entertaining than most, in part because it includes some lyrics and insights that never would have been allowed on an actual TV show of the '50s. But in this context, even the traditional lyrics of some American-songbook standards assume entirely new meanings.

Playing Cole is Dulé Hill, who is better known as a TV star and as a tap dancer on Broadway than as a singer. But his singing sounds sufficiently close to Cole's, and Hill gets to tap as well as to sing. Edgar Godineaux's tap choreography is reminiscent of the furious style of "Bring In 'da Noise, Bring In 'da Funk" in which Hill appeared on Broadway. He's partnered here with a bouncing ball-performance by Daniel Watts as Sammy Davis Jr., who talks almost as fast as he moves.

As shows about showbiz celebrities go, "Lights Out" is much less predictable and more provocative than the norm. It has a versatile cast of nine and a four-piece band onstage.

While "Lights Out" has a lot of music but isn't billed as a musical, "Witness Uganda", at the Wallis in Beverly Hills, is specifically billed as "a documentary musical." But the "musical" half of that phrase is much stronger than the "documentary" part. The sounds, movement and dance invigorate the production much more than the storytelling, which sometimes seems to lack important information, if not entire chapters.

It's based on the experiences of its director and co-writer Griffin Matthews (the other writer and music director is Matt Gould). Matthews (played here by Jamar Williams) went to Uganda in 2005 to do good, after his New York church rejected him because he's gay. Really? Did he think that being gay wouldn't be a problem for a young, black American in Uganda as much as it was in...New York City? Actually, Matthews' orientation doesn't trigger a kill-the-gays reaction, of the kind that later would tarnish Uganda's reputation. But in the absence of that kind of peril, the narrative begins to lose steam. The music, however, maintains so much energy that some of the problems are obscured.

Sacred Fools Theater is producing the West Coast premiere of Jiréh Breon Holder's "Too Heavy for Your Pocket," which examines two young, black couples in 1961 Nashville. One of the husbands becomes inspired to join a Freedom Ride into Mississippi, which causes mixed feelings among those left behind. It's not a perfect play, but it's engaging, and Michael Shepperd's staging is lively and evocative.

The great August Wilson's also-less-than-perfect "Two Trains Running" is receiving a glowing production, in Michele Shay's hands at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose. This is the 1969 opus in Wilson's cycle of 10 Pittsburgh plays. It's set entirely in a diner lovingly designed by John Iacovelli. The play is more memorable for its vivid roles than for what happens along the way to its too-delayed ending. The cast here includes some juicy performances, especially from Adolphus Ward and Nija Okoro. This is the second installment in the Wilson cycle for producer Sophina Brown, who has vowed to produce all 10.

The Matrix also was the site of the 2016 LA premiere of a play about Martin Luther King, Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop." Now Hall's play is receiving a new production at the somewhat larger Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank, this time directed by Gregg T. Daniel, with Gilbert Glenn Brown as King and Carolyn Ratteray as the young woman who enters his life on the night before his death. Because of spoiler risk, critics often avoid being specific about what happens in this play. I'll say only that the play's surprises that might be spoiled are in fact the same moments that spoil it. Be prepared for an extreme departure from the initial appearance of naturalism.

Finally, at the tiny Vs. Theatre on Pico, Lisa Marie Rollins' "Love Is Another Country," an attempt to update "Antigone" in an American context with an all-black, all-female cast, needs another rewrite.

A final note on the 2019 model of Black History Month in LA theater: Ebony Repertory Theatre, LA's biggest black-specific theater in terms of the size of its venue and the cost of its contracts, is presenting one-night-only events every Saturday in February. Robey Theatre, probably the most prolific black-specific company in town, isn't producing in February but will open its 25th anniversary season in April with "Birdland Blues," a new play about Miles Davis. February is hardly your only chance to see theater relating to black history.

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