By Leslie M. Scott-Jones
Walking into the downstage theater at Live Arts, the sounds are familiar. Vocal warm-ups have begun, and musical director Kristen Baltes shouts from the balcony that this is “real life,” signaling to the actors to fill the space with their voices (not easy to do in that room).
Seated in the hallway, with the singing in the background, is Ike Anderson, the director of Live Arts’ 2018-19 season opener, Ragtime.
“This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” Anderson tells me, speaking of the enormity of the task he’s undertaken, professionally and personally. “To direct the season opener for the largest theater organization in Charlottesville—and I’m black.”
The last time Live Arts had a black director was almost 10 years ago, when Ray Smith directed Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. This season, Live Arts has two pieces directed by African Americans.
While there are still glimpses of the usually jovial Anderson, there is a new seriousness, a new shadow, that comes with directing a piece that deals with such intense issues. With a smile on his face, in jest or sarcasm, Anderson talks about the day of callbacks. He stepped out of his home excited to meet the day, take on the world, and was met by a racial slur.
Anderson took on the telling of Ragtime because he felt, “If not me, then who?” His mission is to move the audience’s understanding of what it is like to be black in America.
“This play is about white people that kill some niggas, and walk away,” says Anderson. It’s a dark place to spend more than 10 weeks.
Based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow, (book by Terrence McNally), the musical features African Americans, upper-class whites, and Eastern European immigrants. A well-to-do family takes responsibility for Sarah, an African American woman, who tries to bury her baby alive in the family garden because her husband has left her. Immigrants arrive to Ellis Island hoping for a better life, only to realize that the American dream is not accessible for everyone. A socialist movement forms in New Rochelle. As New York changes, the upper-class family moves to Atlantic City to escape the aftermath of a riot. Immigrants and African Americans fight to be heard and taken seriously, taking matters into their own hands. Everyone in the story goes through a transformation, but this is not a happy musical.
Live Arts has been a pillar in the theater community for more than 20 years, and the appointment of Bree Luck as Producing Artistic Director signaled a new direction for the non-profit.
“One thing we need to do at Live Arts is make sure we’re not just telling stories about a couple of white people sitting around the dinner table,” Luck told C-VILLE when she accepted the director position in 2017.
Ragtime, says Luck, is a story that draws parallels to the struggles of Charlottesville in the wake of August 12, 2017, when three people lost their lives. The musical speaks about how race and class can influence the path of a life. That influence is not always recognizable as negative or positive. With three dramaturgs, each focusing on different aspects of the time, it is clear that there is a deep commitment from the theatrical team to tell a true and visceral story.
“We’re dealing with epic issues, on a small stage—which is where Charlottesville is. We’re dealing with epic issues, and we’re a small town,” says Luck. For some theaters this is a bucket-list show, and despite the complications of producing it, Luck rose to the challenge. “It’s my job to respond to the needs, talents, and desires of the community,” she says when explaining how the entire season was chosen. Those wants and needs have certainly changed since the beginning of her tenure.
Deandra McDonald, who plays Sarah, says she was drawn to the role by the opportunity to tell black stories that are not normally told. The link between this revitalization and the changes in what theater audiences want to see has direct lines to what Charlottesville has been through, and the start of the African American Heritage Center’s Charlottesville Players Guild, an all-black theater company. More black artists are getting opportunities, and Ragtime is a part of that.
“This story is not only a black story, it’s an immigrant story, a story of privilege, and how those worlds blend,” says McDonald.
Live Arts’ Ragtime has the makings of everything that makes life-altering theater: a compelling story, a cast of Charlottesville’s best and brightest actors, and a director with vision. They have come together to tell a story that is as old as time, hoping the audience will understand that this story is still very much real life.
Ragtime, directed by Ike Anderson, is at Live Arts October 5 through 27.