by Christopher Castanho
Ragtime taught me to fight for what is right, dream big, and to never give up.
Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? Did I grab your attention with my deep and existential question? Art & theatre are powerful forces in the world, and can be life changing. My life took a shift during my junior year of high school when I was lucky enough to participate in the musical Ragtime, what is now my favorite musical.
I went through the audition process quite blind, honestly; reading a plot summary and hearing 30 second previews on iTunes was my ‘contextual research’. Seeing my name on the callback list for “Mother’s Younger Brother” was exciting. As I began to learn more about this character, I started to have a burning desire to play this part. Younger Brother possessed traits my sixteen-year-old self was too scared to own. As the cast list appeared in my inbox, I sprung off my bed seeing my name connected with “Mother’s Younger Brother”!
If you don’t know the show: Ragtime centers around three social groups: the white upper-class, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and African Americans, all intersecting in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. Themes of “pursuing the American dream”, racism, and love are weaved throughout the plot like a quilt, forcing you to observe the injustices, struggles, and relationships many went through during this time period. Ragtime presents a lot of situations and issues, I realized, that America still struggles with today.
As the different social groups within the story did not historically mix, we often rehearsed separately at the beginning of the process, a practice which only unified our ensemble as we came together to put the show on its feet. To this day, I still feel chills down my spine when I think of the entire company on stage together, it was magnetic. The power we produced would have been able to light up the entire city of Hartford.
Ragtime altered how I view the world. I lived a very sheltered upbringing and thankfully never had to deal with injustice before. Racism was only something I read about in history books and religious discrimination wasn’t something I’d ever experienced. I will honestly own up to the fact that I am a privileged white male and never dealt with things like this growing up. I never had to worry about being treated poorly based on my sex, color of my skin, what religion I practiced. Seeing it happen to my friends, even if it was just on stage, was hard for me to watch. I couldn’t imagine having to go through something like that.
“Mother’s Younger Brother” changed how I view others around me. My character was also a privileged young man, but once he sees things happening to those he loves, he speaks out and does something. He doesn’t care who he ‘offends’, who he makes an enemy of; he fights for what is right. He taught me to stand up for what you believe in. I am so grateful to Younger Brother, because since playing this character, I have become more confident in my own beliefs and speaking up for them.
I am not saying I personally understand what it is like to be mistreated based on the color of your skin or in regards to your religion or sex. And just because I did a musical in high school does not suddenly make an expert on discrimination, but this musical and experience gave me a greater perspective. Ragtime taught me- through Coalhouse’s struggle, through Tateh’s battles, through Sarah’s love, that if we all come together, humanity and love unite us, no matter what we look like or who we pray to.
I had no idea that what I needed most at 16 was: RAGTIME.