Ever since my daughter announced she'd been cast in her first Theatre UCF production, we'd counted down the days until Kelli was on stage.
That day came last Saturday. We were enthralled. Yes, our little girl was singing and dancing her heart out. But it was near the close of the first act that "Ragtime" — a musical based on E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel examining the intersection of bigotry and privilege — flexed its emotional muscle.
Sarah, a Harlem single mother, decides to find justice for Coalhouse Walker by seeking assistance from a barnstorming vice-presidential candidate. Sarah was betrothed to Coalhouse, her baby's father and a ragtime pianist who had suffered a grievous wrong at the hands of white townies.
Someone in the crowd wrongly shouts that she's armed. Police pounce. Savagely beat her. To death.
Tears and the soul-chilling dirge, "Till We Reach That Day," spill from the Harlemites:
There was blood on the ground/She was only a girl/It will happen again/It will happen again/And again/And again
Good theater transports. And in that one moment, I was.
Not to turn-of-the-century New Rochelle, where Doctorow set his tale of overlapping lives of immigrants, Harlem blacks and the upper crust.
But to 21st-Century Sanford — where questions swirl over an unarmed boy whose blood is on the ground.
Why does nobody care?/There is blood in the air!/We have voices and souls!/What is wrong with this country?/She was somebody's child!
Immersed in rehearsals, the cast only picked up fragments of the firestorm over perceived police indifference, profiling and parallel justice that has roiled in Sanford since the Feb. 26. That's when Trayvon Martin was killed by community watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who police didn't arrest because he claims self-defense.
But after opening night, the curtain lifted. Show director Earl Weaver gathered cast members because, he says, "it did suddenly hit them very hard about the parallels between what we're doing in the show and real life" Sanford.
"Sometimes," he says, "your art takes on a different meaning."
Why should I turn the other cheek?/What about justice!
That "Ragtime" coincided with Trayvon's shooting doesn't surprise Cornelius Davis, 20, who plays Coalhouse.
Sanford's turmoil "really brought awareness that what we're saying in … the show is important and has validity," Davis says. "It has such a current message."
We are one with you/Now the world will know/There are Negroes out there/To make them listen!/We're all Coalhouse!
For Davis, the message in the sloganeering that outraged Americans have stamped on signs and printed on T-shirts — "We are Trayvon" — speaks to Ragtime's central message:
"… [T]here are great things about America, and also some [bad] things. These bad parts, we must take a moment to acknowledge ... that if we don't change, history will continue to repeat itself."
A vengeful Coalhouse turns vigilante. He ignores the conciliatory words of black educator and orator Booker T. Washington, who knows that America's survival rests on blacks and whites living together as harmoniously as the black and white keys of Coalhouse's piano.
In the closing scene, a character reveals his dream of a film starring little black and white rascals. Art that Karen Reid, 22, who wrung out every drop of pain in "Till We Reach That Day," says is hope for "peace and serenity among all people."
Here's hoping, this time, life imitates art.
Let the new day dawn/ Oh Lord, I pray./We'll never get to heaven/Till we reach that day.
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