San Diego, CA—It’s hard to believe that Mo’Olelo Performing Arts Company is a whopping ten years old. Cutting its teeth on rarely or never before seen plays, founding mother Seema Sueko forged a niche for such contemporary pieces as “Remains”, “A Piece of My Heart”, “Yellow Face”, “Night Sky”, “Stick Fly” “Extraordinary Chambers”, “The Bluest Eye” and just recently “Milvotchkee Visconsin”.
The long awaited world premiere of Robert Barry Fleming’s “Scott Joplin’s New Rag: The Life and Times of the King of Ragtime Writers” is up and running now through Oct. 19th.
The name Mo’Olelo translates as story/legend/tale/narrative. Written and performed by Robert Barry Fleming in a singular performance, while taking on the roles of several important people in Joplin’s life fits this definition above. As directed by George Yé, Fleming’s story it is exactly that, a narrative of the life, legacy and times of Scott Joplin but (and there is always a but) he also musically accompanies it. No easy fete, this.
“Boy, when I am dead twenty five years, people are going to remember me”. Scott Joplin died in 1917. In 1970 he was inducted in the National Academy of Popular Music Hall Fame. “In 1975 his not at first accepted opera “Treemonisha” (an opera that paid tribute to his mother) received a celebrated performance by the Houston Opera and in eventually played on Broadway”. In 1976 he was posthumously honored as recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.
One never has a way of knowing what the future holds. Joplin’s entry into the world in the late eighteen eighties wasn’t exactly ‘negro’ friendly’ nor was his rise to fame a piece of cake. There was no Civil Rights movement. Blacks were (and still are) marginalized and still could be found on the cotton plantations picking cotton. Emancipation seemed a good word back then, yet celebration was a long time coming.
It was post Antebellum and as far as ragtime music was concerned one visitor to an early concert of his thought, “ Ragtime is the whitest music black people ever contributed to popular American music”. Joplin: “There has been ragtime music in America ever since the Negro race has been here, but the white people took no notice of it until about twenty years ago.”
Joplin was born into a musically talented family. His father Giles, an ex slave, played the violin for plantation parties in North Carolina and his mother Florence played the banjo and sang. His early piano lessons by his German-Jewish music professor, Julius Weiss, who was impressed with the talented boy had him studying folk, classical and opera.
The road to fame for him seemed to be as a music teacher and traveling musician throughout the Midwest. He also performed with Sedalia’s Queen City Concert Band that included thirteen black musicians. He later performed as The Texas Melody Quartet. His accomplishments fill pages. His “Maple Leaf Rag” (the Maple Leaf Club was named for it) became an influential hit and made him a wealthy man, but alas he died penniless.
Our story begins after a musical interlude after which Fleming’s Joplin plops in an armchair. We learn he is in a New York Mental Health Facility fragile, worn and near death with a debilitating case of dementia caused from syphilis.
Fleming’s poetic off times disjointed and non-linier look back at the life, times and compositions of the great musician is aided by the use slides, projections with parts of interviews on them, silent film clips and surrounded by piano parts. David F. Weiner designed the set with Tom Nottage in charge of the props and John Serbian and Carlos Wauman assisting. Jason Beiber’s moody lighting sets a wonderful picture and Jeannie Galioto’s costume design looks right.
Fleming not only narrates oft in verse or hip-hop, but also makes use of finger tutting with fingers dancing in mid air, sign language, stepping, rap, clapping and stomping to imitate the effects of Joplin’s illness. He interrupts his narrative several times to do this little dance. It can be and was a distraction.
He plays several of Joplin’s works at a real live piano, some too long and tedious but giving a good variety of his works. His narrative oft time seemed confusing, hesitant, distant and difficult to understand in the small space especially when the projections changed and more than one voice was speaking.
Opening night performances can and many times are a bit shaky. Fleming’s look back on Scott Joplin’s less than contented personal life and the times surrounding them wasn’t quite on solid ground for opening night audiences but the material, presentation and multi use mediums are clearly worth polishing and revisiting.
Referred to as a contemporary meditation, Fleming is to be congratulated for attempting to give is some insight into Scott Joplin’s turbulent life as a way of paying homage to the great jazz musician.
As an FYI The Academy Award winning “The Sting” featured several of Joplin’s compositions including “The Entertainer”. It was also alluded to in the piece that Irving Berlin, who earlier rejected Joplin’s “Springtime Rag” later published his own “Alexander’s Rag Time Band” which Joplin complained to friends as having been his.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Oct. 19th
Organization: Mo’Olelo Performing Arts Company
Production Type: Musical Meditation
Where: 930 10th Ave., Downtown
Ticket Prices: Start at $15.00
Venue: 10th Avenue Arts Center