A Conversation with Zurin Villanueva & Darnell Abraham
Theater has a sneaky way of recycling itself. It’s relevant. Then time passes. And then it’s just like new again.
Ragtime at Barrington Stage arrives at a time where the issues from the musical set in 1900s America are eerily timely. Racism, xenophobia, immigration rights… it feels like the characters could have lived as easily in today’s America as they do in Roosevelt’s. We chatted with the production’s Zurin Villanueva and Darnell Abraham to talk about the source material, the process of breathing new life into the much-beloved show, and where we go from here as artists and Americans.
Michelle Tse: How would you say you identify most and least with Sarah and Coalhouse, respectively?
Zurin Villanueva: Sarah is a simple but very decisive woman. When there is a problem she immediately goes into solution mode. I definitely relate to that impulse. Also, the heartbreaks in my life have helped me tap into the grief Sarah is feeling in “Your Daddy’s Son” and “New Music.” It was not hard to know what it felt like to be left by the love of her life.
Darnell Abraham: I grew up in a rough part of town and had to learn how to survive in two different worlds: the ‘hood,’ with its unique challenges, while going to schools in predominately white neighborhoods with their own unique challenges as well. So I had to learn how to exist in two different worlds without compromising who I really am, all the while believing that if I work hard enough, I’ll be recognized and awarded for my hard work and championing the fact that Black men are as equally intellectual, talented – and contribute as positively – to society. We see the exact same thing in Coalhouse. He learned how to exist in two different worlds and did his best to rise above a system that was designed to work against him. He rose above it until a couple traumatic experiences turn him.
Michelle: Wonderful. What do you think of the ending of the show and what do you think will become of the baby?
Zurin: The ending of the show is something we spoke about in length during the staging of this production. It’s hard because once the show has ended we have delved head first into the harsh reality of racial prejudice, immigration, big business, and even a woman’s role in society and then we kind of end the story with not much idea of what the solution to all those things are. I love the fact that Joe Calarco decided to have the last image of the children. Saying that they are our only solution, which I wholeheartedly believe is true. Coalhouse Junior would have probably lived a good life, very different from other boys his color – and that would be a good thing in some respects, but hard for him when feeling different than his peers. When this happens in real life, this makes the child feel like he can’t be himself but only a representation of what his white peers expect him to be. He’d be like many Black children who have been brought up in privilege, surrounded by people that may not look like them. Hopefully, it leads them to a greater understanding of both worlds and our society as a whole.
Darnell: Zurin answered this question perfectly. I agree.
Michelle: Leading off that, Ragtime revolves around not just the identity of the characters, but also about the changing identity of America as a country. Does our current sociopolitical situation make that story more poignant and important to tell right now?
Zurin: Of course it does. I think it’s obvious in the midst of Black Lives Matter movement, immigration laws changing against new refugees, and even abortion coming back into the forefront how sensitive we all are now as a country. The sad truth is, not much has changed, especially when speaking of how African Americans are treated in this country by law enforcement. It’s very scary and we are all aware of it. I do believe as long as we stay vigilant and keep pushing for policy change, fighting for what’s fair and right, we will succeed. As a country, we have become complacent in exercising our rights as citizens to make sure our rights stay intact. And seeing the play now reminds us of that fact and hopefully inspires us to action.
Darnell: I think Ragtime has always been poignant but I must say it is even more so now than before in modern history. When it comes to our sociopolitical landscape and the overall changing identity of America, I have learned that people will see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear, but when you put a mirror in front them, they can’t deny what’s in front of them. That’s what Ragtime is and what it does — it’s a mirror that forces us to reckon with our inner demons and brokenness. There has never been a more crucial time for this in our country.
Michelle: So how has it been performing this piece in a place like Pittsfield, where the demographic is 85-95% white?
Darnell: As an actor, I am focused on sharing my truth regardless of the demographic of the audience. However, I hope that by doing so, it will enlighten the audience.
Zurin: Unfortunately, it’s not much different than all of the other regional theaters I’ve performed at with the exception of Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey. All the other great regional theaters I’ve performed at have been 90% white as well. I’m glad there have been some school groups that have come that have children of all ethnicities, that is always the most important thing to me. As long as young people see actors that look like them doing this, they know that more is possible than what they may have been taught. That is something I would definitely like to see more of.
Michelle: What does Ragtime say about the role of Blackness in America and how does that connect to the present real world? Do you think it is interpreted differently now vs. its conception in 1996?
Darnell: I believe ‘Blackness’ is the result of ‘Whiteness.’ It’s merely cause and effect. I believe in context of the show, Blackness in America is an acknowledgement of racial disparity. Ragtime makes this clear by reminding us of what American society looked like at the turn of the 20th century. Sadly, not much has changed since. There is a natural evolution to everything but I think the principal themes found in the show are timeless and timely. How we interpret them today will vary depending on individual experiences.
Zurin: Well, I would like to say that random citizens can no longer stop a vehicle or harm another person without getting arrested the way it happened in 1906 when things like lynching were common. However, [as Darnell pointed out], the only difference now is at least now they are arrested and tried before they are often acquitted such as Trayvon Martin’s killer who was not a cop. We have to think about what that says about our society, what that says about what we believe. If a Black child can be killed beyond a shadow of a doubt and the killer is not punished, what does that say to our youth about what’s important? I think while doing this play we all realize how little has changed. Then we are forced to ask ourselves how is that possible? It shouldn’t be and we have to face that reality.
Michelle: So would you both agree with Coalhouse regarding the conclusion that words can best actions, in terms of spurring radical change?
Darnell: I think Coalhouse finds middle ground. He exhorts his followers to resist violence but to continue the fight for justice with word and action. I like to think of it as embracing the fundamental ideas of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois.
Zurin: No, I do not think only words can spur change. I don’t agree that violence does it either. I do believe that having conversations across color lines do help. We have to talk to each other, that is the only way we can start to heal ourselves. In terms of results, I think the only action that really gets a response in this capitalist society is money. The only thing that can truly stop the policy that is against our best interest is attacking the businesses that uphold those policies.
Michelle: I am also curious about both your thoughts on the role of race in the industry, and specifically the idea of playing roles written by folks outside of the culture.
Zurin: Race in this industry is just starting to shift. It shifts in that roles that would previously be given to white actors are now up for grabs by other races. The roles in Great Comet on Broadway right now is a great example. I’m sure this is a result of Hamilton. Hamilton’s success using a cast of color entirely to play real-known people that were most certainly white and having that show be a huge success proves that color will not stop folks from buying tickets. That has been the myth used for centuries. That somehow more roles of color in Broadway shows, TV, and movies would hurt ticket sales. That has always been a myth and now we know for sure. With regards to people of other cultures writing stories of other people, I think we will always have a bit of that and as long as their research is done that is fine. I think it’s a matter of range. I only take issue if the ONLY stories being produced about my people are written by other races. That means the variety of storytelling is off and that should never be. In a perfect world, of course.
Darnell: I agree with Zurin on this. The tide is changing and I hope that our industry leaders will continue to embrace art that is reflective of our diverse society. I applaud writers like Terrence McNally that seemingly take careful approach in developing characters of color such as Coalhouse. In addition, to see more inclusive casting in the industry coupled with more roles written for artists of color is encouraging. Audiences are also beginning to hold our leaders accountable because they want entertainment — whether on the screen or the stage — that reflects our real world.
Michelle: A slight change in topic — Darnell, you list a handful of charitable organizations you’ve worked with on your website, from sending Liberian kids caught up in the war to school, to empowering the poor in Harlem, to providing safe drinking water, and ending sex trafficking of young girls. How do you choose which organization to work with? What would you like to say to folks who are new to activism, most likely since and because of the current climate?
Darnell: My wife and I aim to support local and global communities however we can. We look for organizations whose mission align with topics that we are passionate about: education, feeding the poor, human rights, women rights, and the right to live a healthy and fulfilling life. We’ve come in contact with some of these organizations by way of own network and research. My advice for anyone new to activism, especially in the midst of our current sociopolitical climate is this: It’s a big beautiful world and we all must do our part to make sure that it is protected for generations to come. Humble yourself. Challenge yourself by interacting with people who don’t share your faith, political views, or social ideologies. We can all learn something from someone whether it be good or bad. Protect the widows and the orphans and love your neighbor, but you must learn how to truly love yourself first before you can extend love healthily.
Michelle: Finally, any advice for aspiring theater artists? What has been the steepest part of the learning curve for you?
Zurin: I would say what has helped me the most was my awareness of my skill. Knowing where I was in development, checking every three months on what I was missing, what I needed to improve upon, and what teacher or lesson could help me fix it. The key is to stay aware and know that no matter where you went to school, your training is never over. You are constantly changing as a person. That means your skill will change and you must keep abreast. You can also learn on the job. A job can get you to the next level but only if you know how to get through the audition. The audition is in many ways the most difficult thing in this business. You have to learn how to love the audition any way you can. If you are freaked out by dance auditions, go until you don’t care. Know how long you need to practice before you start over analyzing or how short if you’re under prepared. Love the audition at all costs.
Darnell: Keep going! Surround yourself with people that will be honest and supportive. Be hungry to grow and learn. Stay humble but be persistent. Don’t let anyone dictate your truth. No one.
Michelle: Thank you both for such a lovely conversation!
Zurin Villanueva. Broadway: Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. National Tour: The Book of Mormon. New York: Witness Uganda (lab). Regional: Ruined (Everyman Theatre), Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Crossroads Theatre), Josephine Tonight! (MetroStage), and Crowns (Arena Stage).
Darnell Abraham has been seen on many stages around the world and continues to prove himself a versatile artist by slipping into character for traditional or contemporary musical theater. In the studio and concert stage, he has collaborated with some of Broadway’s top performers as well as Grammy and Emmy award-winning artists. Darnell received critical acclaim for his recent performance as Jake in Media Theatre’s Broadway Series production of Side Show. Darnell has been featured as a principal performer in Disney’s Festival of The Lion King and can be heard on the video game soundtrack Tekken 7 by Bandai Namco Entertainment. He has also been an invited guest solo artist for several high profile events around the United States as well as a global think tank in Cape Town, South Africa where he performed for world leaders representing over 44 countries. Darnell is a proud member of the Actor’s Equity Association and resides in Manhattan. He will continue in the role of Coalhouse at Ogunquit Playhouse in their production of Ragtime from Aug. 2-26. Learn more here.