New Jersey Jewish News
Jewish immigrants enrich American landscape in Ragtime
Everyone stands out as an individual, not just part of the chorus, said Cynthia Meryl of Westfield. Artistic director of Westfield Young Artists Cooperative Theatre, Inc., Meryl was explaining her philosophy as she worked with a cast of 48 young actors all WYACT participants on a production of Ragtime, the Musical, based on Jewish-American writer E.L. Doctorows acclaimed novel.
Ragtime will run for nine performances at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark from July 14 through July 23. The production will then travel to the Algonquin Arts Theatre in Manasquan, to run from July 28 through Aug. 6.
Ragtime, set around the turn of the 20th century, focuses on three families: one Jewish, one WASP, and one African-American. The Jewish family consists of Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, and his young daughter. Around him, in the chorus, are a number of Jewish immigrants.
In keeping with her philosophy of having each performer portray a distinctive individual, Meryl asks her actors to fill out character development sheets. The young performers, whose experience ranges from school musicals to professional stage and screen work, create biographies for their characters that help them become those people.
Though it is never spelled out in the play, each person has a date and place of birth, a family, an occupation, a history, and a state of mind. This was particularly useful with the young people assuming the identities of types of people they are too young even to remember.
Music director Ilene Greenbaum of West Orange helped considerably by talking with the young actors about their Jewish characters. A self-described observant Jew, member of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, and a former trustee of the National Council of Jewish Women in Essex County, Greenbaum shared stories about her own familys immigrant experience with the actors.
Also helping to establish the Jewish identity of the characters was choreographer Sherry Alban. Im a Jewish girl, she said, so I understand Jewish movement. The movement of Ragtime comes from the inside out. She defined an upward arc with her arms, portraying, she said, a spirituality. Its a feeling, the joy of coming to America and how that manifests itself in the body.
She also noted that in the posture and gait of the immigrant characters, including those representing Italian and Haitian immigrants, she intended to reflect the hardship of the life they have come from and the burdens they bear.
As each young person took on the challenge, that actors particular inclination was demonstrated in his approach. Kevin Sebastian of Bogota, who has a leading role as Tateh, is, at 24, one of the most experienced actors in the cast.
Sebastian, a graduate of Ramapo College with a major in theater and a minor in music, has appeared in numerous plays ranging from an off-Broadway production of Hamlet to a play entitled 12th Night of the Living Dead. He has also appeared in several films, including a small role in The Producers.
With a Jewish mother and an Italian father, Sebastian said that although the immigrant generation was gone before he was born, he feels that the cultural influence from both sides helps him understand his character. Ragtime is a show Sebastian had hoped to perform in since he saw the Broadway production about 10 years ago.
The various stories and the music just lift the show up, Sebastian said. All actors have a list of shows they would adore to be in one day, and this was always on my list. And Tateh had such a full story and his character went through such high highs and such low lows. For an actor, its such a meaty role. His story was in some way like some of my familys stories, because Im sure they came here for the same reasons.
Sebastian also did research. Since Tateh came from Latvia, the actor found out what was going on in Latvia in the first decade of the 20th century. The bloody revolution of 1905 that expanded from Russia would have motivated Tateh to start his journey to America. It takes all your senses to be there and to understand the cold and hardship they went through, what it took to get onto a boat, what it was like to be on that boat. These thoughts helped him frame his character.
To develop Tatehs accent, Sebastian studied the original cast recording, noting that the accent has to be distinct enough to convey the character but light enough so that the audience can understand the words.
Cast as anarchist
One cast member who faced a particular challenge was Kelsey Thompson, 17, who will enter Montclair State University this fall with a dual major in education and musical theater. Thompson, a West Orange resident, is cast as Lithuanian anarchist Emma Goldman, one of a handful of historic figures interwoven into the fictional story.
Thompson whose ancestry is a mixture of European, native American, and some even back to the Mayflower said the particular immigrant experience depicted in Ragtime is not part of her family history.
When she was asked to read for Emma, she was hesitant.
I listened to the CD and tried to do the accent, she said. And she spent time with the father of a Jewish friend, whose accent she tried to absorb by listening. I also tried to get as much information as I could about Emma Goldman and the plight of the immigrants. Right now, she said, Im reading her biography.
Two performers playing Jewish immigrants who called on personal and family history to create their roles are Matthew Lieberman of South Orange and Ariel Casner of Cedar Grove, both descendants of Jewish immigrants.
Though 18-year-old Lieberman is too young to have known any of his immigrant forebears, he said he thought of stories about his great-great-grandfather, Jacob Greenblatt, a chicken farmer in South Jersey early in the 20th century, and of the hardships the Greenblatt family went through.
Though it is not written into the script, Meryl suggested that Lieberman envision his character as a rabbi. His story is that his shul in the old country was burned down in a pogrom, Lieberman explained. He wants to care for his peoples spiritual needs, but theyre too poor to support him. He has to feed his family, so he works in a factory.
Liebermans family, who, he said, are supportive of his performing activities, belongs to Congregation Beth El in South Orange, and he said, My Judaism is very important to me.
The family the fictional rabbi has to feed is his wife, played by Casner, and the infant she cradles in her arms. At 16, Casner is just about to enter her junior year at Cedar Grove High School. A serious violinist, she has played in the orchestra of an earlier WYACT production and hopes to study music and theater arts in college.
A member of Temple Sholom of West Essex, Casner has heard stories of her familys life in Austria and their subsequent immigration, particularly from her maternal grandmother. She has put these stories into her character, whom she describes as very protective of the baby, very concerned about her.
Because of the multi-racial, multi-ethnic nature of Ragtime the rehearsal room is like the melting pot, or perhaps more like a tossed salad, with all the colors and textures working together while retaining their individual characters. Not unlike New Jersey itself.
Ragtime was first published in 1975, the work of the acclaimed Jewish-American novelist E.L. Doctorow. It weaves a vibrant tapestry of America at the turn of the 20th century, focusing on three fictional families, one Jewish immigrant, one white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and one African-American, whose lives intersect. Doctorow dots his landscape with real historic figures, including Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit, and J.P. Morgan. The book was made into a film in 1980. Ragtime, the Musical, opened on Broadway in 1998, with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. It received 12 Tony nominations and took home four awards.
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