I was 13 years old when the original production of Ragtime opened on Broadway. A friend of mine played “Little Girl” in the original cast and invited me to her new show. I had recently become obsessed with the score from Once On This Island, so seeing another show composed by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens piqued my interest. But having experienced other “traditional” Broadway productions, I was convinced musical theater was NOT my thing.
The lights dimmed, I restlessly prepared for what could be an agonizing next three hours, and the overture began. To say it truly was “the music of something beginning” could sound cliché, but honestly, the stirring in my spirit was palpable. From the start, it was simply the most beautiful combination of expression I had ever experienced. A stunning score, paired with brilliant direction, simply raised to supremacy by an outstandingly capable cast (side note: in addition to a love for theater, this experience would also incite an eternal obsession with one Ms. Audra McDonald), and most of all, a great story.
Nearly 20 years later, the cast of the Ragtime national tour is telling that story, based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, in theaters all across the country. The tour, which recently opened in Las Vegas, has shows scheduled throughout the U.S. through the spring of 2016.
I recently had a chance to catch up with actor, friend and certified hoot, Jeffrey Johnson II (Dreamgirls, Hair, The Color Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ragtime, Hairspray) to discuss his newest task of taking on the role of Booker T. Washington in the national cast:
Broadway Black (BB): Tell us about your role.
I play Booker T. Washington in the national tour of Ragtime. I’m one of the historicals interwoven into this fictional story. In a search for justice, Coalhouse decides to take over the Morgan Library and Booker T. comes in as the mediator. He’s the voice of reason after this tumultuous situation.
BB: What have you learned about Booker T. Washington since taking on this role?
We all know he’s such a great influence, not only in Black history but really in American history. He had such an incredible sense of honor and labor. He somehow found his way to Hampton University and worked as a janitor to get into school. Even the Tuskegee Institute, he built that school. If they weren’t in class, he and his students were literally building that campus.
BB: Did you already know these things about him or did you do some research?
I researched. Taking on this role, I wanted to know exactly what I was stepping into. I picked up the book “Up From Slavery” thinking ‘oh, this will be a good summer read.’ I finished it in three days! It was just so interesting!
BB: What have you learned about yourself as a performer since taking on this role?
*Johnson was originally called in for the ensemble but, after auditioning, offered to read the part of Booker T. Washington for the assistant director, ultimately securing him the principal role.*
I feel like the director took a big leap entrusting me with this role. I knew I was younger than some of the men who had played this part before, but I knew I could do it. I had to trust my gut. Sometimes you gotta show up, do what you do and hope for the best.
BB: Marcia Milgrom Dodge helmed the Tony nominated revival in 2009. How was it working with her for this production?
Marcia is incredibly knowledgeable about theater and she is incredibly knowledgeable about this script and this score. It was a little daunting, but also thrilling because I don’t know anybody who could tell this story this well. [In reference to those commenting on Dodge’s stripped down adaptation] I’m a vegan so I think in terms of – she’s juiced it. She’s taken all the necessary pieces and leaves the audience with everything it needs.
BB: Why do you think this story needs to be told?
When Ahrens and Flaherty created this show, they were referencing subject matter from the early 1900’s, and they thought we were past it. You know, race, immigration… But life is cyclical and we’re back at the place where we have to talk about these issues. I hope it will generate conversations in the communities we are able to reach because we really got a long way to go.
To find Ragtime playing at a theater near you, visit HERE.