By Pat Launer
Talk about your ambitious projects! Robert Barry Fleming wrote the play, “Scott Joplin’s New Rag,” and plays all the characters — not only talking almost nonstop for 70 minutes, but singing (a bit), dancing (impressively — including moonwalks and hip hop moves), reciting rap poetry and playing piano: and not just simple tunes; the complex, syncopated rhythms of ragtime.
As can be expected from such a mammoth undertaking, it doesn’t wholly succeed. There’s just too much of everything. Long piano pieces (and while Fleming is good, he isn’t concert-level). A significant amount of time-hopping (with little explanatory assistance). Overlapping slides and projections that can become unintelligible. And just too many ‘high concepts’ — like the hip hop link. Or the fact that this whole proceeding might be the fever-dream of a man in the throes of death, wracked by syphilitic dementia.
There’s considerably more telling than showing or enacting. Some of the text is in the third person (quotes from others, newspaper reports). The sum total is that we never get to connect or sympathize with the man who was dubbed “the king of ragtime.”
We do learn that the long-forgotten but recently re-discovered African American composer grew up in Texarkana (born 1868 or thereabouts), and later moved to Missouri. He began publishing music in 1895, and his “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) brought him considerable fame. That piece provided a steady income for life, though Joplin never reached that level of success again, and frequently suffered from financial (and other) problems. He attempted to go beyond the limitations of the musical form that made him famous, without much monetary (or personal) success. He was confined to a mental institution in 1917, and died there at the age of 49. His death is widely considered to mark the end of ragtime as a mainstream music format.
But in the early 1970s, with the release of the Academy Award–winning movie, “The Sting,” that featured several of his compositions, most memorably, “The Entertainer,” Joplin’s music had a major resurgence. His opera, “Treemonisha,”partially and unsuccessfully produced in his lifetime, was finally mounted to wide acclaim in 1972. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
Not all this information makes its way into the labyrinthine play. But we do learn a bit about his three wives. And the loss of his infant daughter is the most moving scene in the play. The most provocative element is glossed over — the insinuation that Irving Berlin stole one of Joplin’s melodies to create “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” This accusation is passed by so rapidly, we barely get time to grasp the significance of the allegation — or its resolution.
What does come through loud and clear is that Joplin was aggressive and arrogant, and he antagonized a great many people. As the narrative repeatedly underscores, he was a resentful and angry man (at least at the end of his life, as portrayed here). Very angry. Not that African Americans didn’t (and don’t) have plenty of reasons for rage, disgust and impatience with the bigotry of this country. But if that’s the crux of what we come away with, it’s a disservice to actor, audience and subject.
Fleming is, unequivocally, a multi-talented and highly engaging performer. George Yé is a skillful director. David F. Weiner is an imaginative scenic designer (excellent lighting from Jason Bieber, too). But the piece needs to be sharpened and tightened, especially in focus.
Clearly, this is not intended as a straightforward bio-play. It’s structurally experimental: non-linear Scenes from a Life. But the jarring switchbacks in time and style are too fragmented to keep us engaged or concerned.
Still, kudos are due for taking the risk: to Fleming, of course, and to Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company, whose name and mission are all about storytelling. And this is a great, mostly unfamiliar, story, presented in a unique style. It serves as an excellent showcase for Fleming’s diverse talents, but it doesn’t quite do justice to Joplin’s genius or his tortured life.
“Scott Joplin’s New Rag” is a total success in one important way: it made me want to learn more about the man who virtually created a new style of music, which still sounds terrific today.
- The Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company production of “Scott Joplin’s New Rag” runs through October 12, at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center, 930 10th Ave., downtown San Diego
- Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Running Time: 70 min.
- Tickets ($22-$32) are available at www.moolelo.net
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: