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Ragtime’ reflects racial integration

Marcela Berrios | Monday, March 5, 2007

While students and professors who see a broad-shouldered young black man in class may quickly assume he is a football player – a common Notre Dame stereotype – the gradually increasing involvement of black and minority students in non-athletic organizations and events could help change that mindset.

“Historically, the exposure for African-American men at Notre Dame has always been relative to sports,” said Chandra Johnson, director of Cross Cultural Ministry. “That’s where the stereotype comes in, and I think many African-American young men don’t realize how much that misconception is entrenched in the Notre Dame community and in those who come from outside, especially during home football weekends, and how the stereotype permeates the experience of many African-American men here.”

Johnson, who served as assistant to University President Emeritus Father Edward Malloy, has worked with minority students on interracial issues at Notre Dame for more than a decade.

In the last five years, she said she has witnessed the presence and leadership of black and minority students expand across the campus’ arts and student government realms – an observation confirmed by the Pasquerilla East Musical Company’s (PEMCo.) production of “Ragtime” last month.

“Ragtime” organizers assembled a cast that was approximately one-fifth black, making it one of the University’s most racially integrated collaborations outside a football field or a basketball court in recent years, Johnson said.

Junior Anna Mazig, director of Acting and Outreach for “Ragtime,” said a handful of black students were hesitant to participate or objected to the show during its organization, a result of the language and the themes it touched.

However, she did not receive any complaints following the premiere of “Ragtime.”

“I haven’t heard a single negative thing about the show, even from the individuals who were initially skeptical towards ‘Ragtime,'” Mazig said.

Sophomore Kyle Carter, who played Coalhouse Walker in “Ragtime,” said the production was an important stride toward exposing the artistic abilities of black students to the rest of the University community.

“I already knew the African-Americans many people saw for the first time in ‘Ragtime’ were accomplished performers, because in what you would call ‘the black community’ they’ve had plenty of stage experience in high school, Black Images or Black Koffeehouse,” he said. “However, no one else on the campus would’ve known about their talents without ‘Ragtime.'”

Another “Ragtime” co-star, sophomore Ashley Cook, also said the talents of the black community on campus went relatively unknown outside that community until “Ragtime” came along.

“Every ethnic group has its own show here, and that’s great because it strengthens the sense of cultural identity, but the problem is that your talents are displayed only to your racial group,” she said.

Sophomore Floyd Rose said he had stayed within the black community until he participated in “Ragtime.”

“I’ve always been sheltered in my own community, but when you branch out it’s really a wonderful experience because you meet so many wonderful people from all colors who really care about you and want to work with you to achieve something bigger,” he said.

Group-specific programming

Iris Outlaw, director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS), said “Ragtime” was able to incorporate different ethnicities because the production’s script tackled the theme of racial lines and consequently called for a multi-racial cast.

She said she thinks the challenge ahead is integrating non-white performers in productions that don’t necessarily discuss ethnicity.

Different groups from different racial backgrounds already participate in events that don’t directly pertain to their ethnicity, she said, citing past appearances of the Saint Mary’s Irish Dance Team and the black First Class Lady Steppers in Latin Expressions, a celebration of Hispanic tradition.

Junior Michelle Mas, one of the masters of ceremonies at the upcoming Latin Expressions, said there is a tradition of cross-racial collaboration in Notre Dame’s ethnic programming.

Under the umbrella of the MSPS, she said, a variety of ethnicities come together because “we understand the importance of each other’s cultural heritage, but more importantly, because I don’t think these group-specific programs are targeted at specific groups anymore.”

“Everybody intermingles simply because it’s the natural thing to do since those racial barriers from the past are being broken a little more every day,” Mas said.

Mas said junior Anya Hershberger and senior Jason Laws will choreograph certain acts in Latin Expressions, though neither student is Hispanic.

However, Outlaw and Johnson agreed there is a need on campus to promote entertainment programming that can feature students of all colors – outside of ethnic contexts – to compliment the segmented programming already in place, which includes Latin Expressions, Black Images and Asian Allure, among others.

“I think the group-specific programming that happens on campus is very important because it strengthens the identities of the different ethnic communities here – and from there, the majority students can incorporate,” Johnson said.

That incorporation, she said, is now simply a matter of time.

“I believe ‘Ragtime’ was the tip of the iceberg,” Johnson added. “I believe it’s already happening because there is a socially conscious population of majority and minority students.”

The shift to inclusiveness

Johnson said she believed the engine powering the increase in the number of black artists and student government leaders on campus is the student body’s growing acceptance of cultural differences. She attributed the move to the upbringing of Notre Dame students and the newspaper headlines that have steered their career courses.

“Within the last five years I have noticed a marked shift in the type of student that comes to Notre Dame. I call this generation the post-9/11, post-Enron generation,” she said.

Johnson said Enron exposed the fraudulent activity in the business world and its disrespect for the common worker at the hands of high-ranking officials, while Sept.11 exposed the country’s vulnerabilities at the homeland security level, relative to the citizens’ fear of strangers and foreigners.

She said today’s students are in tune with the politics and the needs of the planet – but unlike their parents and grandparents, they are not afraid to cross racial lines to reach their goals.

“What girds America right now is the fear of the stranger and the new generation is saying, ‘We’re taking the best of the best from whatever group they come from and we’re going to attempt to do a better job,'” Johnson said.

She applauded senior class president Sheldon Dutes and newly elected student body president Liz Brown and vice president Maris Braun – as well as the electorate – for breaking biases that in the past could have prevented black or female candidates from serving in leadership roles.

“While it is true that the misconception is that most African-American students here are

athletes, I feel that it is important for the ND community to recognize the contributions and involvement of African-American students in other areas besides athletics,” said junior Tristan Van Voorhis, president of the Black Cultural Arts Council.

Johnson said she expects more events like “Ragtime” in Notre Dame’s future, but thinks they will have to be created by students. There aren’t many shows that exist in American entertainment that replicate that degree of ethnic integration, she said.

Johnson praised PEMCo. for its outreach to the black community and its willingness to engage in racial dialogue. The collaboration between majority and minority students is a positive step, she said.

“It’s a higher social consciousness from the majority students that is breaking down the barriers that have separated them from the minorities – and minority students are coming with the same desire to be a part of a broader community,” Johnson said.

That desire is evident in at least one student group. Mazig said several of the black cast members who first collaborated with PEMCo. on “Ragtime” – as well as minority students who sat in the audience and enjoyed the production – told her they want to permanently join the musical company.

That’s the case for Carter, Cook and Rose.

At the beginning, Carter said, the black cast members who were new to the company – as well as the first-year and Saint Mary’s performers – felt estranged and distanced from the returning PEMCo. artists. However, students gradually grew acquainted with each other and became a “family,” he said.

Cook said she hoped more students from more ethnic pools will be encouraged to participate in PEMCo. and other non-minority groups in light of Ragtime’s successful racial integration and display of teamwork.

She – as well as Carter and Rose – said she’s planning to stay with the company and participate in its musical revue this spring.

In light of “Ragtime,” Rose was optimistic about the coming years.

“This is what Notre Dame could be in the future,” he said. “A place where we could all accept each other and respect each other’s gifts and come together as one.”