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Ragtime’ explores race issues

Emily Keebler | Friday, February 9, 2007

Members of the Pasquerilla East Musical Company (PEMCo.) – joined by faculty members and a graduate student – facilitated exploration into the emotionally charged issues of race, class and the American dream Wednesday night in their production of “Ragtime, the Musical.”

Director and senior Jack Calcutt said the key to this year’s production is to “watch it, reflect on it and learn from it.” The leaders of PEMCo. decided to hold an academic panel to facilitate this discussion on the Wednesday between the two weekends of shows. The last two performances of Ragtime will take place today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Washington Hall.

Panelists included Donald Pope-Davis, dean of the graduate school, G. David Moss, assistant vice president for Student Affairs and advisor to the black men’s group Wabruda, Martin Wolfson, associate professor of economics and policy studies, graduate student Crystal Blount and Christy Fleming Greene, advisor for Shades of Ebony and assistant professional specialist in the First Year of Studies.

The panelists reflected on the show, which Calcutt called “an ambitious production.”

Blount agreed that Ragtime is a thematically difficult show to put on and to watch.

“It did seem to be a difficult performance – not only for the cast, but for the audience as well – because of the emotional issues involved,” Blount said.

Blount conducts research on the impact of psychological stress from incidents she calls “micro-aggressions” – daily insults that result from racial or ethnic discrimination.

Black and multi-racial panelists and audience members acknowledged such discrimination and its far-reaching effects.

“The racial tension that was here when I was at Notre Dame – that still exists,” Fleming Greene said.

She and other panelists urged students, regardless of nationality, to speak out against racial discrimination and live the concept of the Notre Dame family on a daily basis.

“We have to say that if this affects you, this affects me,” Pope-Davis said.

Another theme of the forum was about taking personal accountability for one’s language and actions, especially since the use of racial slurs in the musical caused controversy about whether it should be performed on campus.

Calcutt said listening to experts and students express their views was a rewarding experience.

“[Race] is an emotional issue,” he said. “It’s important to know that this is at the core of some people.”

Discussion has been part of the show from the beginning, Calcutt said, and Wednesday’s forum was a way to “make it formal,” as well as to involve the campus.

While controversy persists about the show’s content, panelists said ultimately, the debate has been unifying for the black campus community.

“There was an ownership of this production by the black students that I hadn’t seen before: ‘You know what, this is my campus … this is who I am. I am Notre Dame. This conversation will take place because I am a part of Notre Dame,'” Fleming Greene said.

Another topic discussed at the forum was the concept of the American dream, especially as it relates to race, class and country of origin.

“[‘Ragtime’] raised very important questions about the American dream in 1907,” Wolfson said. “It remains for us to ask the question of the American dream in 2007.”

Wolfson cited unemployment, poverty and income statistics that, despite civil rights granted to blacks, demonstrate the racial disparity that still exists, including within the South Bend community.

But the ultimate message of “Ragtime” should be one of hope, Calcutt said.

“If we have courage, as is evidenced in this production, we can achieve the American dream,” he said.