Make them hear you. Make them hear you.
His voice is low and proud, angry and resolute. His voice is bass, and he carries it to the back of the hall. Darnell Abraham is Coalhouse Walker Jr., tall and formal in a dark red suit jacket and a bowler hat, and he is insisting on his right to be a man in America. On Sunday afternoon (in summer 2017) I heard him in Ragtime at Barrington Stage Company, and I won’t forget it.
Places in that musical made me cry. And places made me shake. It is a complex story or web of stories set in New York in 1906, and it feels gut-clenchingly timely today.
Coalhouse Walker is a Harlem musician, an educated, intelligent man inspired by Booker T. Washington. He wants a country that will let him work, build a life with the woman he loves and raise their son.
He comes through fear and insecurity to find Sarah, a young woman who came to the city from the south. Zurin Villanueva sings in a haunting high soprano, vulnerable and forceful at once.
But around them America is a complicated place. It can be indifferent, hostile and unexpectedly violent. Rarely, it can be unexpectedly kind.
A large cast builds the story — Tateh, an immigrant from Eastern Europe with his young daughter; celebrities and activists from Emma Goldman to Booker T. Washington himself; and a well-off white family who, alone in the group, have no names but their roles: Mother, Father, Younger Brother, Little Boy.
They are looking for the country they thought they were promised. Some are looking for truth or integrity. Some are looking for a way to make people hear. And in one way or another the results can explode.
The central people on stage are facing change that can make or break them. Mother says, when she is confronted by a hard choice, if I had turned away, what kind of woman would that have made me?
Mother also recognizes that being able to make a choice is a privilege. She has resources, and she knows how to use them, or she can learn. Elizabeth Stanley shows a sheltered woman facing realities that frighten her and realities that exhilarate her, and her strength is potent.
This is a timely story and not an easy one. It moves among many people and many voices. But it holds clearly a hard-won hope and the ignorance and unthinking malice that can break it. It holds a call to act and the continuing question of how to act effectively.
When Allison Blackwell as Sarah’s friend lifted her voice in “Till We Reach That Day,” the resolve and the grief in it shook the wide room apart.
It’s a day of peace
a day of pride
a day of justice
we have been denied …
The words written here, silently, will not carry the full force of her voice, but it shook me. It called me to walk outside and make things happen, to do more and to be more, and to find stories and people who need to be heard.
In the photo at the top, Zurin Villanueva and Darnell Abraham perform in Ragtime, the musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel of New York at the turn of the 20th Century. (Photo by Daniel Rader, courtesy of Barrington Stage Company.)