by Braxton Crewell
In a conversation about a timeless and relevant tale, Trinity Rep’s artistic director, Curt Columbus, talked with me about this spring’s production of Ragtime, which he will direct and which is certain to be one of the most pertinent and exciting shows of Trinity Rep’s 2017-18 Season.
Braxton: What excites you about the show, especially as a director?
Curt: The reason that I wanted to do it is because I had recently reread the book and found myself aware that all of the issues in 1905 that E.L. Doctorow is writing about are the issues of today. All of his interest in fame, capitalism, American nationalism — the Black Lives Matter text of the book, the women’s rights text of the book, and the immigration text of the book are literally everything we are dealing with now. Now is the time, I thought, because it is so hard to find parables within which we can see our problems vividly without it shutting down conversation. So my hope is that returning to this particular book right now will spark a really good conversation in our community about things that are important.
Braxton: When was the first time you read the book or saw the musical?
Curt: I first read the novel in high school in the late ’70s, when the book came out. I had an English teacher in 11th grade named Jim Carson, and he was like, ‘THIS IS ONE OF THE GREAT CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN NOVELS,’ and I went, ‘OK, I better read that.’ He had also encouraged me to read Moby Dick and I had a mind-altering/mind-expanding experience with that. So here was Ragtime and it kind of blew my mind, partially because Doctorow’s project is not naturalism at all. For example, the Caucasian family is Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, The Boy, and Grandfather, so they’re called by these generic names and he has this project about what we perceived as middle class-ness. So the white people are kind of objects in this story, whereas Coalhouse, Tateh, and Sarah all have names. It’s very interesting. I saw the musical on Broadway when it first opened because my friend, Frank Galati, directed the first production. I saw Audra Mcdonald in the role of Sarah — and I lost my mind — and Brian Stokes Mitchell in the role of Coalhouse, who was just dreamy. I still remember in that 3000-seat Broadway house Audra sang “Your Daddy’s Son” and people were just sobbing — I was sobbing. It profoundly moved me and it has always been on my list to produce, and so here we are.
Braxton: What do you hope our audiences will take away from this production?
Curt: What I hope is that maybe we can make changes as a community so that these issues are not still the burning issues of 50 years from now. The hope is by looking at our history as history that we can see a way forward in the present.
Braxton: What is your favorite song in the show and why?
Curt: “Wheels of a Dream,” because it’s such a great anthem. It’s so hopeful. It’s so alive to possibility. It’s so beautifully written. One of the things I love about this show is that musically it is telling a story as well. There’s a way in which “Wheels of a Dream” is typically American, and it speaks to American optimism and American exceptionalism and all of the things that we think about when we think of that turn-of-the20th-century moment. Musically it is doing that, while the text is doing all of that, and then it’s going to be our doing that too. It’s just going to be so beautiful. Yeah, I think it’s going to be pretty special.