Brilliant and tragic, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. is one of the most compelling musical theater roles of the last decade, probably the most complex one written for a black actor in the last 50 years. A character in the multiple Tony-winning show Ragtime, based on the best-selling novel by E.L. Doctorow, he's a ragtime musician from Harlem whose human-size story mirrors the social and political combustion of the early 20th Century. To actor Lawrence Hamilton, who plays Coalhouse in the touring production of Ragtime, the character seems more contemporary than Ragtime's1902 New Rochelle dateline.
"I go out and make Coalhouse real every night," says Hamilton. "People can relate to his plight, and I try to make them feel every bit of his pain but also his joy and happiness."
At the center of Coalhouse's story is his love for Sarah, who gives birth to his child, then abandons the baby in terror of being stigmatized as a single mother. The child is rescued by Mother, the head of the upper-class family for whom Sarah works. Coalhouse is reunited with Sarah, only to lose her to violence. He then transforms his grief into political action, becoming one of the many revolutionaries who dotted the social landscape of the early 1900s.
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Coalhouse's plight is just one of three narrative threads that are woven through the musical, which also includes the stories of an upper-class WASP family and that of a widowed Russian Jewish immigrant and his young daughter. Famous figures such as Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington also make appearances.
Many of the show's most pivotal scenes, though, involve Coalhouse, who at one point is harassed by policemen who are suspicious of a black man driving a new Model T. He's subjected to racist insults, and he fears for the safety of his family. "I told [director] Frank Galati that I think I'm a 1999 version of Coalhouse Walker, because no matter how much money I have, I still get stopped on the road by the police because [I'm] driving a nice car," says Hamilton, a 44-year-old native of Arkansas. "It will be a wonderful day when we can tell this story as part of our distant past. But in 1999 we still go through some of the same problems that were occurring in 1902."
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Indeed, Ragtime's resonance with modern audiences is partially responsible for its 12 Tony nominations. And it doesn't hurt that the production features a Tony-winning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who earlier collaborated on Once on this Island; a Tony-winning book by Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!); and Tony-winning orchestrations by William David Brohn.
Hamilton, who joined the tour in July directly from the Broadway company, plays the role originated by Brian Stokes Mitchell, a critically acclaimed actor Hamilton refers to as "my icon." Hamilton points out, however, that "no one can do what he does, and no one can do what I do. I think I make Coalhouse a little earthier, more of a regular guy."
Hamilton also brings to the role his background as a classically trained musician. He grew up listening to ragtime music courtesy of his childhood piano teacher (she was a contemporary of Scott Joplin) and made his Broadway debut in the 1979 show Timbuktu. He later appeared in The Wiz and Jelly's Last Jam on Broadway.
Now he'd like to try film, but Hamilton knows that Coalhouse is a more fully realized African-American character than he's likely to play on the big screen. Like many actors and viewers alike, Hamilton yearns for a project along the lines of Brewster Place, the short-lived 1990 TV series based on the Oprah Winfrey-produced movie of Gloria Naylor's book about the lives of African-Americans. "I'd run home and tape it," Hamilton recalls. "You'd get to see more about the lives of people, more than black men being pimps or criminals."