Mr. Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Ezekiel Andrew have a history. When Ragtime opens at the Hobby Center courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars it will be the fourth time Andrew plays the pivotal character in the musical set in early 20th Century America. In fact, in the last three years he's been playing him almost continually.
Based on E.L. Doctorow's novel of the same name, Ragtime tells the story of three groups in New York City, one of them Walker's. "I represent all black people during that time," Andrew says. The other two are immigrants from Eastern Europe and an upper class white family living in suburbia, whose mother evolves into a feminist way ahead of her time.
All of which, he says, makes the show very relative to now.
Despite the racism of the period, Walker, a Harlem musician, was able to survive. When asked how, Andrew says: "I think he knew how to talk. He had the gift of gab. He was a charmer a very charming young man. I think he just allowed that natural gift to prepare him. He did so well to climb the ranks and become a prominent musician. Handsome and a talented man — I think he just kind of slid his way on up."
Real historical figures of the time are interwoven throughout the musical and serve as links to eventually bring the three different groups together.
Key to all of this in this musical is the syncopated genre known as ragtime, popularized by Scott Joplin ("The Maple Leaf Rag.") In Ragtime, the music is by Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally.
Ragtime music, a precursor to jazz, was very important to African Americans of the time, Andrew says, "The genre ragtime was so important because of identity, having a music to call your own that when you were done working for the white man, slaving away, they would say, you came back home and you wanted something of your own. A Rag during that time was one of the ways an African American was able to coin a different style of music. And because New York was a hub of all different kinds of cultures coming in you had people joining and mixing in the development of rag, the development of jazz."
"Rag is huge. It's the way people could be themselves during that time."
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Andrew, whose father is a minister and who eventually sang in church himself, came up through the opera side of the music world first at a performing arts high school in Mississippi and then on to an undergraduate degree in vocal performance at Mississippi College in Clinton. He attended the Cincinnati Conservancy of Music for four semesters before transferring to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg for his master's. Musical theater is relatively new to him.
With a cast of about 25 actors, Andrew says he thinks everyone in the audience will be able to find themselves at some point in this show. Ragtime resonates with messages of tolerance and understanding, which is why, Andrew says, it continues to draw in audiences and why he still loves the part it gives him to play.
"It's not a message I get tired of preaching. The stage becomes a pulpit for me of sorts."
Performances of Ragtime are scheduled for April 16-28 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sunday April 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $30-$104.50 plus fees.