Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
Touted as the King of Ragtime, African-American composer Scott Joplin (circa 1867-1868 to 1917) became truly famous, as he predicted, but only after death. In life he was well known for “Maple Leaf Rag.” He left 40-some published rags, a ballet and two operas, one of which is believed to have fallen victim to Joplin’s chaotic life and times. The other, reconstructed from materials found in numerous locales, was produced.
At the Tenth Avenue Arts Center through Oct. 12, you may hear Joplin rags played live and learn everything you always wanted to know in Robert Barry Fleming’s reverential, meticulously researched bio-play with music, “Scott Joplin’s New Rag: The Life and Times of the King of Ragtime Writers,” produced by Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company. George Yé directs the rag-rife work in which Fleming plays all the parts, dances, raps and tickles the ivories.
The production, set amid a jumble of piano parts, a spinet and musical scores, is enhanced by historic projections as well as chapter headings invented by Fleming to give the feeling of watching a silent movie, though this production is anything but silent. Fleming dances, plays the piano and raps in a kind of rhyming, metrical Victorian poetry, some of it written by the composer and some written, one presumes, by Fleming, perhaps to show how close to rap Joplin really was.
Born into a family of musical laborers in the years immediately following the Civil War, Joplin received piano and music theory lessons from a German Jewish immigrant in Texarkana, where he was raised. He found a publisher in Vidalia, Missouri that began publishing his ragtime compositions, most famous of which were “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.” The lost opera, “A Guest of Honor,” concerned President Teddy Roosevelt’s White House dinner invitation to Booker T. Washington. During a tour, the road manager absconded with the profits, and all Joplin’s goods were confiscated, including the opera’s score (some historians dispute this).
The second opera, “Treemonisha,” concerns the education of a slave girl and was performed only in fragments during Joplin’s life. Bits and pieces were discovered and assembled much later, and the opera was eventually mounted at Wolf Trap in 1972, at Houston Grand Opera in 1975, and briefly on Broadway. It was recorded and televised in 1985.
Though his ragtime music was bright and upbeat, Joplin’s life was not. He buried an infant girl, divorced, remarried and then buried his beloved wife of only two months. He struggled to find acceptance as a composer, battling prejudice and ultimately syphilitic dementia.
When Fleming’s play begins, Joplin is deep in that dementia, during which he burned much of his music. Thus, the piece is unrelentingly tragic despite the bright and wondrously played music and the creative movement vocabulary devised by the playwright, who is supremely gifted. Would that he were able to depart from reality — the kind that has plagued many artists from time immemorial — and find a few lighter relationships and moments. Alas, they did not exist, and apparently that is not the show’s purpose. Without a compass, African American composers still find it challenging to be accepted in the Euro-centric arts. Perhaps, had he lived long enough, Joplin would have made a breakthrough.
In addition to Fleming’s stunning talent, David F. Weiner’s set, Jason Bieber’s lighting and Jeannie Galioto’s costumes enhance “Scott Joplin’s New Rag.” Mo`olelo and sound designer Joe Huppert have yet to conquer the Tenth Avenue main stage’s acoustical problems, but kudos to all for having the guts to present Fleming’s important, earnest world premiere.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Her book “San Diego, Jewel of the California Coast” (Northland Publishing) is currently available in bookstores. She can be reached at email@example.com.