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A Day of Peace; All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Musicals


Before the internet, exploring a new musical meant going to a music store and buying a cast album that may or may not be great. Trust me. Many of them were not great. When I saw the Ragtime CD case, I knew I had to have it. I remember popping this disc in for the first time in my dorm room while ironing of all things. (not something I did too often) Why do I tell you this? Because it made such an impression on me, I can recall exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard this musical for the first time. I remember mindlessly tidying my room and crying my eyes out for these characters I’d never seen.

Ragtime, based on the novel “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow, centers around three families:

The white people - Called by their role in the family such as: Mother, the Little Boy, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, and Grandpa. They represent the upwardly mobile, white, suburban families at the turn of the century.

Colehouse Walker Jr. and Sarah - A black couple working to better themselves despite blatant racism and hostility.

Tateh and his young daughter - Eastern European immigrants risking everything to make a new life in America.

I saw this show for the first time in college when my boyfriend (now husband) took me to see the national tour in Cincinnati. We had the kind of seats a college kid who worked construction all summer to spoil his girlfriend would have. Very good, but not the very best. I was on cloud nine to see this show. We arrived at the theatre in plenty of time. I looked at my watch and said, “We have almost an hour before it starts. Let’s walk around a little.” So, we did. We looked at storefronts and took in the sights. When we returned, no one was standing outside the theatre. My heart sank. I looked at the tickets and show started at 7:30 not 8:00 like I thought. It was 7:28. We sprinted to the doors and an usher looked at our tickets. She looked at her watch and said, “I can’t get you to these seats before the show starts and it’s a 10 minute hold if you don’t get in there now.” I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. Then, she said, “I know of two seats that are open. I can seat you there faster.” Then, she proceeded to walk us to the front. We passed row after row after row until she stopped a few feet from the stage. I looked at Ryan and his eyes got really big and we sat down just in time for the little boy to come out and say,

“In 1902 father built a house at the crest of the Broadview

Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York, and it seemed for

Some years thereafter that all the family's days would be

Warm and fair.”

When I finally tore my eyes away from the action, I looked back and realized just how big the theatre was and I saw all those other suckers who got who here on time and had to sit in their own seats. It was a magical night and of course I married that guy. Why wouldn’t I?

Later, when I was teaching theatre, I had my students sit in a circle with booklets of the lyrics to Ragtime and listen from the prologue to epilogue. It’s the only musical I did this with. Why? Because everyone can identify with someone in the show. Because it sparked amazing discussions about the American Dream, race, justice, and hope. Because I got to watch students be moved by a musical for the first time. They’d say things like, “I didn’t know musicals could make me feel so much.” And this from all kinds of kids -not just the ones who always feel so much.

This musical is like one of those photomosaics where you think you’re seeing the picture, but you zoom in to see it’s made up of hundreds of tiny pictures. I could go a hundred different directions, but, I’m choosing to focus on this:

We should never give up hope for a better America, but it will require real change and real action.

Hope

’Till We Reach That Day is one of my favorite songs. Colehouse’s cherished model T was destroyed by a group of white supremacists, and he refuses to get married until he gets justice for the crime. Sarah hears about a campaign rally in New Rochelle, so she goes there to try to talk to the Vice Presidential nominee about Colehouse’s plight. A security guard thinks she’s armed when she approaches the candidate and he kills her. This song, sung at Sarah’s funeral, is the great hope for all those who want the kind of America where everyone is truly free. Check out these lyrics:

“There's a day of hope

May I live to see,

When our hearts are happy

And our souls are free.

Let the new day dawn,

Oh, Lord, I pray.

We'll never get to heaven

Till we reach that day.”

I tend to identify with the character of Mother the most. Probably because I’m a white mother. I can choose to be insulated from problems of race by simply closing my door. At one point, Mother sings:

“You (her husband) would have gently closed the door and gently turned the key and gently told me not to look for fear what I might see. What kind of woman would that have made me?”

Like Mother, I have that privilege, that freedom to ignore what’s going on outside of my home, but I also long for a day when all Americans are truly free. It makes me think of the pledge we all recited daily in school. “Liberty and justice for all.” It might sound trite, but so many Americans would say they believe that, but deep down, they don’t really want it. They want freedom and justice for some. For those who look like them. For their families and friends. It’s something to say, but in order for that to be a reality, a lot of things need to change.

Change

Father is on an expedition to the North Pole when Mother chooses to take Sarah and her newborn baby in to care for them. Over the course of the first act, Mother connects with Sarah, sympathizes with her, and advocates for her. But she never would have had that opportunity if she hadn’t changed her proximity to Sarah in order to understand her. It was more than not shutting the door. She allowed another person into her home and ultimately into her heart.

It makes me wonder where in my life I can change my proximity to better understand others. Spoiler. There are many, many ways. Sometimes it starts with just being humble enough to admit I don’t have all the answers or that I’m wrong. That my experience is a privileged one and I need to open my eyes to the lives around me to better understand where I need to change.

When Father comes back home, he assures Mother that once this all blows over, they can go back to the way things were. This is her response:

"Back to Before"

Back in the days

When everything seemed so much clearer.

Women in white

Who knew what their lives held in store.

Where are they now,

Those women who stared from the mirror?

We can never go back to before.

There are people out there

Unafraid of revealing

That they might have a feeling,

Or they might have been wrong.

There are people out there

Unafraid to feel sorrow,

Unafraid of tomorrow,

Unafraid to be weak,

Unafraid to be strong...

There was a time

When you were the person in motion.

I was your wife.

It never occurred to want more.

You were my sky,

My moon and my stars and my ocean.

We can never go back to before.

So much had changed for Mother. She’s independent now. She’s seen things she can’t unsee. She knows a quiet life in her quiet home in New Rochelle isn’t all she was made for. She knows she has to take action.

Action

If you think Colehouse is angry about his car, you should see him after Sarah is killed. He fights for justice in a way that will get people to listen. He takes The Morgan Library captive and threatens to blow up all the precious artifacts inside. Ultimately, he chooses to let go before someone gets hurt, but first he delivers a powerful message to those awaiting a resolution. If you have a minute, watch this video. It’s one of the most beautiful and powerful songs ever written for the Broadway stage.

"Make Them Hear You"

Go out and tell our story

To your daughters and your sons.

Make them hear you.

Make them hear you.

And tell them in our struggles

We were not the only ones

Make them hear you.

Make them hear you.

Your sword can be a sermon

or the power of the pen

Teach every child to raise his voice

and then my brothers, then

Will justice be demanded

By ten million righteous men.

Make them hear you.

When they hear you

I'll be near you, again.

What is your sword? Is it a sermon? Is it what you teach your children. Is it a protest or a vote? Is is walking across the street to have a conversation with a neighbor who doesn’t look like you? What action do you need to take to move closer to a day of peace? It will be different for everyone. But if we all take a step, we’re a lot closer to freedom and justice for all.

I love this musical. I’ve loved it for over 20 years, but the message is something we need to hear today more than ever. In order to improve this nation, we must strive for justice. We have to change and we have to take action. No going back to before.

Blessings,

Shannon

 

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