By Jodi Maile Kirk
At The Musical Theater Project, we use the art of musical theater not only to step into a story or soak in the wonder of a song but to examine and explore the human condition. Musicals offer a unique opportunity to look within. They invite us to unearth our greatest joys and sorrows, to honor both our triumphs and our challenges.
Sadly, many of our most beloved musicals and favorite songs offer a limited world view seen primarily through a white lens. So many voices remain unheard, So many stories untold. We must continue to ask ourselves, “What stories are being erased? Eliminated? Reduced?” And most importantly, “Who is telling those stories?”
Currently, the story of our nation is one of a great divide. We continue to live in two Americas. It has been a summer of unrest and racial turbulence. Many of us continue to wrestle with hard truths as we bear witness to the horrific murder of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others. The fuels and flames of social injustice are raging throughout this land, and we seek to find a united voice.
In searching for a musical that reflects this time of reckoning, I landed on the musical Ragtime. Although written by white artists, the piece authentically explores part of our American story that is either glossed over or ignored. Once again, I was moved by the power of the music and the intricate weaving of three separate narratives. I soaked in the lyrics to one of the show’s stand-out songs, “Make Them Hear You,” an anthem inviting us all to stand for justice no matter the cost. As I listened to it this time, however, its promise rang hollow. I found myself getting angrier and sadder as I questioned the ongoing cost for people of color—the cost of generations—that continues to be too high.
I found myself haunted by the story of Mother and the journey of the song “Back to Before.” Although the song in the musical reflects Mother’s ownership of her own agency, I realized that in order to move forward, White America needs to sever ties with the stories that we have told ourselves for too long. We all need to step out of our comfort zones so we honestly look at our nation’s history, as well as our personal history. We must honestly look at the promise of the Civil Rights movement versus the reality. We must rectify the systemic injustices that continue to plague who we are meant to be. Only then will we find a way to be a nation in which everyone--everyone, no matter the color of their skin or who they choose to love—is treated equally, fairly and with justice and respect.
Black lives matter.
In Ragtime, the story of Coalhouse Walker ends tragically. We must continue to fight and change the narrative. Thankfully, an amazing group of TMTP artists shared their gifts and their hearts as we worked together to blend songs from this powerful musical as well as images from our shared history to create this video and--hopefully--begin a new dialogue. This performance invites us all to come together and lean into hard questions, as we try to move forward. To change the story of who we are and who we can be.
The Musical Theater Project's authors include Bill Rudman, Heather Meeker and Joanna May Cullinan - and guest writers from time to time!