Crystal Williams plays Sarah and Jerold E. Solomon plays Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Diamond Head Theatre's production of the musical "Ragtime."

‘Ragtime’ packs
a punch

In a sense, you can blame Jerold E. Solomon's theatrical success on poor grades and his parents' strictness.

Solomon, who stars as lead character Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Diamond Head Theatre's production of "Ragtime," opening tonight, was not allowed to try out for his Springfield, Va., high school basketball team when his grades failed to meet mom and dad's expectations.

So after choir practice, which he enrolled in for the easy "A" and to be near a girl he liked, he headed to the gym to play some hoops. But the building was also being used as a rehearsal hall for "South Pacific."

"I had some friends in the play, and somehow they talked me into trying out by singing the 'Star Spangled Banner,'" said Solomon, who landed the lead role. "But I never wanted to do musical theater because I really didn't consider it real acting."


With guest artists Jerold E. Solomon, Crystal Williams and Mary Gutzi

Where: Diamond Head Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 12
Tickets: $12 to $42; discounts available for full-time students, 62 and older, and active-duty military
Call: 733-0277

The only musical theater the teenager had watched up until then was "The Wiz." Even at college, Solomon, 24, stayed away from musical theater in favor of "legitimate" theater.

Then five years ago, a girlfriend talked Solomon into attending a touring musical at the National Theater in Washington, D.C.

"I completely expected to hate it because I didn't have a clue what it was about," he said. "The play was 'Ragtime.'

"It hit me hard, very hard," he said. "The actor doing Coalhouse was phenomenal, the play's message clear and wonderful. I never ever thought I would be doing it, especially in a national tour."

Solomon performed as Coalhouse in the national touring company for 10 months in 2001; another production followed last year in Florida.

"Ragtime," set at the turn of the 20th century, focuses on three New York families in different social classes and their cultural ties to the city. It intertwines the lives of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime musician from Harlem; a Victorian family in New Rochelle, N.Y.; and a Latvian Jewish immigrant and his daughter.

"It's about their individual journeys and how they're struggling with these conflicts within themselves," Solomon said. "Through the narrative ... their lives all crisscross and meet and they influence each other in a very dramatic way."

THE FOUR-TIME Tony Award-winning musical is based on E.L. Doctorow's novel with the same title. It was also made into a 1981 film featuring actor James Cagney's last big-screen performance.

The musical has multiple story lines, serious socio-political themes and large cast of principal characters. The play delves into how "historic figures touch the lives of these ordinary people who have extraordinary things going on in their lives," said Solomon who lives in New York City.

The real-life historical characters include automobile maker Henry Ford, master illusionist Harry Houdini, financier J.P. Morgan and political activist Emma Goldman. Also woven into the characters' lives are historic events, including the sinking of the Lusitania, the birth of the American labor union, the development of assembly-line technology, and the dawn of the automotive and motion picture industries.

THE STORY "has a surprising way of sneaking up on the audience in terms of how involved they get," Solomon said. "Talking really doesn't do justice in the experience of actually attending it, and you find yourself so emotionally involved in the characters and in the story and how they're dealing with their struggle."

The successful upper-middle class family in New Rochelle includes Father, who thinks his life complete with an obedient wife, Mother; a healthy, energetic son, The Little Boy; and the means to indulge in travel while Mother cares for his home and business.

Mother turns out to have a mind of her own when she decides to take care of an African-American baby found in her flower bed and shelter the baby's unwed mother, Sarah, Coalhouse's lover.

Sarah's story tells of her involvement with Coalhouse, a ragtime pianist she met in Harlem, their complex relationship, and the ensuing problems of confronting the bigoted, segregated community that Father finds so safe and comfortable.

As their lives disintegrate into grief and sorrow, another family of outsiders, a Jewish immigrant, Tateh, and his daughter, The Little Girl, struggle to follow their own American dream.

Central to the story is the plight of African Americans, freed from slavery a few decades earlier, but not allowed integration in the nation's social and economic fabric.

"We're looking at a time in American history and seeing the flaw in a lot of people's thinking," Solomon said.

"Coalhouse is such a charming man and engaging spirit. He represents the ideal of a black man way before black men thought of themselves in a certain way. He just felt that he belonged in the world and should be treated like everyone else.

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