NPR – Morning Edition – On Ellis Island, ‘Ragtime’ Confronts Racial Injustice


This week, “Ragtime” — the 1998 musical that asks, “Who is an American?” — came to Ellis Island, the country’s entry point for 12 million immigrants.

But “Ragtime” is about more than newcomers to the country. It also looks at how the hopes of African Americans have been historically sidelined by poverty and violence from officials (it is firefighters and the U.S. Secret Service who are brutal in the show, not the police, but the idea is the same.)

At this concert production of 12 songs from the musical, the emphasis was on these racial elements of the show. Narrator Brian Stokes Mitchell, a Tony-winner who starred in the original cast, shared stories of his personal connections. Booker T. Washington, for example, plays a key role in the musical — and he was a family friend. Mitchell said the show seemed prescient in 1998, a year when racial violence spiked with a horrifying murder in Texas, and is as pertinent now.

“Unfortunately or fortunately, it always seems to be a relevant moment for the show,” Mitchell told WNYC. “The issues we have with race in this country are always happening…and ‘Ragtime’ helps open that discussion for people.”

The one-night event was meant to help raise interest in a longer-running, site-specific production, according to director Sammi Cannold, who hopes to bring “Ragtime” back to Ellis Island by summer 2017.