BY CARY GINELL
The musical Ragtime, which plays through this Sunday, December 4, at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, is an important work that weaves actual historical personages into the fabric of its three intersecting stories: an upper-class white family, the African American ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., and the Latvian immigrant Tateh. Two of the historical characters in the musical had profound impacts on American political history, which have heightened relevance due to the emotionally charged 2016 election, refocusing attention on matters of race, class, and immigration. This weekend, we interviewed the actors portraying anarchist Emma Goldman and educator/orator Booker T. Washington in the show, which will be featured in advance of this weekend’s final performances of this essential work of musical theater.
Meghan Jones, is one of the standout performers in the ARTS production of Ragtime, playing the role of Emma Goldman. Her comments, like those of Louis Baker, who plays Washington, show that the actors have put much thought into these performances, especially given the volatility of the just-concluded presidential race.
VCOS: Tell me about your background.
MEGHAN: I started out as a classically-trained ballet dancer and then became a dancer in theater. Through that, I morphed into picking up smaller roles. I danced for thirty years, and when that career ended, I started getting bigger and bigger parts. I had my AA degree in dance from Pensacola Junior College and then got a B.A. in theater arts from the University of West Florida. After graduating from college, I started doing the national circuit. I’m non-union, but I performed in theaters all across the United States. I eventually came out here to pursue film and was married at the time. But my son was diagnosed with diabetes and I was divorced and had to get a real job so I didn’t have the luxury of doing auditions to get my union card. So I raised him as a single mother. I lived here for twenty years, moved to Florida to take care of my mother, who had Alzheimer’s and was there for thirteen years. After she died, I moved back here. I’ve only been back since July.
VCOS: How was it in Florida when you had to take care of your mother? Were there any acting jobs there?
MEGHAN: You talk about Emma Goldman being deported, that’s how I felt there. I felt like I was in exile. I was living with the enemy. It was a place where pickup trucks have Confederate flags hanging off the back. It was hideous. After my mother passed away, I stayed another year and then realized it was time for me to return to California. To me, Los Angeles is my home. Carlos Penaranda, who plays Father in Ragtime, is a good friend of mine, and he didn’t know I was back, but he posted on Facebook that they were holding auditions for the show. So I came to audition for it because he was in it, and I wanted to surprise him. Well, I didn’t see him at the auditions, and I hadn’t done a show in ten years, after being in theater for forty years. The last show I did was The Lion in Winter, and I played Eleanor of Aquitaine. I’d been to Simi Valley a lot but had never been to this theater. So first, I just wrote down “ensemble.” Emma is usually played by women in their forties, but the character breakdown said “Emma Goldman: 40 to 60” and I’m 61, so I wrote down “Ensemble/Emma” right before I walked in. I got called back along with two other ladies, who were very, very good, so I didn’t really know how I did until I got the call that I got the role.
VCOS: What did you know about Emma Goldman when you took the part?
MEGHAN: It’s interesting because my mother was a Freedom Fighter, from the 1970s to the 1990s. She was a suffragette and marched on the front lines for women’s rights and civil rights. She was a social civic activist. She was not as radical as Emma Goldman but I grew up in that world. She never spoke about Emma, she was not anywhere near as radical, but she was in that vein. Before I auditioned, I went on line and devoured everything I could, but the first thing that I did was to watch an hour-and-a-half documentary called An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman, produced by WGBH in Boston. It was very intense and really opened my eyes. I’m a radical myself but I’m not anywhere near as intelligent as Emma Goldman was, but I’ve always had that tendency. I’ve always been outspoken. I’m an extreme liberal, way off to the left. I remember when the Equal Rights Amendment was being proposed. When it was defeated, it was like a death in the family in our house. It was really horrible. Any time I got a performance review in a job, I was always called out for being insubordinate. I have strong beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, about equality and justice and righteousness. I don’t believe in oppression, so I already had the Emma mindset. I just didn’t have the activism. Everything my mother did, marching and speaking, I’ve channeled through my characters on stage.
VCOS: What is like for you to play Emma Goldman, this champion of the oppressed at such a critical time in our nation’s history?
MEGHAN: Playing her has been an incredible experience at this time because I actually believed that we had become an enlightened society. I really believed it. My mother died in February 2015, but we waited until her birthday in June to bury her in upstate New York where she was from. And I stood at her grave – and this was before Hillary Clinton won the primaries – and I promised her that the first woman president was going to be elected the following November. I made that promise to her. And I believed it. And I preached it. I believe in equality and I thought we had gotten there, so much so that I wouldn’t even read a post about Donald Trump. If I saw his name, I would pass it by. When he won the election, I was beyond upset. I felt gutted. It was incomprehensible to me, not because he was a man and she was a woman or because he was Republican and she was a Democrat, but because of the fact that she was the most qualified person that’s ever run for President. That’s why I voted for her, and why not? But the fact that this person that beat her was such a blatant racist, misogynist, bigot, homophobic, disrespectful capitalist PIG (laughs), I’m sorry!
VCOS: Sound like you’re channeling Emma right now.
MEGHAN: I mean, everything he represented was just literally incomprehensible to me. And I’m not being dramatic here. But I was so grief stricken that this individual could become President of the United States, that I could not even stand the next day. And that’s not drama. I was literally bent over in grief. I couldn’t get out of bed. So the day after, I dragged myself out; I forced myself to go to the beach, because I love nature. I went to the Malibu Lagoon and I just sat there and absorbed all of the ions, negative and positive, in nature because I didn’t want to be a human being, I just wanted to be part of nature. I literally went back to that because I didn’t want to be a person anymore.
VCOS: Ragtime opened on October 29, the week before the election, so there was this conflict that developed in your second week, where, although you had had these high hopes for Hillary Clinton, you still had to go to the theater to play this character. Did the turmoil outside of the theater help you in your performance or did it distract you?
MEGHAN: Actually, it helped me. The first performance after the election, my co-actors told me, “You were on fire!” Emma was supposed to be on fire anyway, she was a pillar of concrete, as you know. Now, they’re always very complimentary to me anyway, but they told me, “You channeled something tonight,” and I felt it, they felt it, and the audience felt it. So I feel so fortunate that I was able to creatively filter these feelings. I don’t know what I would have done had I not been in this play. But that’s what this whole show is about – it’s about love and acceptance and understanding and equality. And we believed all of that. That’s what Ragtime is all about. We were doing ancient history. That’s what we thought Ragtime was. And it was also hard doing it in Simi Valley because of the history of racism that has been here. That’s not gone.
VCOS: How different is E. L. Doctorow’s Emma from the real Emma?
MEGHAN: Oh, Doctorow’s Emma is “Emma-Lite.” He just channels her workers’ rights side of her personality. That’s her reality in this show so he could tie all the stories together. But she had so many different sides to her, like the first phase of the women’s suffrage movement. She wasn’t for it because they wanted the right to vote, and they thought that letting women vote would purify the process. But Emma said that you can’t purify something that can’t be purified. She was also one of the first proponents to accept homosexuals and lesbians and letting people love who they want to love. Not only was that unacceptable in society, it wasn’t even accepted in anarchists’ circles.
VCOS: How do you fit in with the cast? Have you gotten to know your co-actors well by now?
MEGHAN: Oh, we have every race, we have every religion, we have gays, we have trans, we have hetero, we have it all. It’s really life imitating art and art imitating life. We’re not cast in these parts for no reason. The workers’ rights thing, which is very powerful, is not something that my generation understands because we haven’t really suffered like they suffered back then. We’re asking for an increase in the minimum wage, there is that fight. I, myself, have been grossly underpaid for someone with my background, education, and talent, but I don’t think it is as vital to this 2016 cast. We understand it but we haven’t lived it like they did. So here comes this election, and now the very people who I am working alongside with are scared. They’re afraid that their gay marriages are going to be declared null and void. I’m going to be eligible for Social Security next year and I don’t know if I’m going to get it. I hope so, because I haven’t got anything else!
VCOS: Doctorow wrote the story so that the historical characters are paired up with the fictional characters. The little boy is matched up with Houdini, Coalhouse is matched up with Booker T. Washington, and your character is paired up with Younger Brother. Tell me about that mechanism, that link you have with him.
MEGHAN: He’s looking for a cause. Nick Ferguson, who plays Younger Brother, and I talked a lot about this back stage. We wondered why he still lives at home and thought that he is like any young person who doesn’t have a direction. He works for his brother-in-law’s fireworks factory and has all this talent but he’s aimless and has no passion for anything except this beautiful young woman, Evelyn Nesbit, who he was attracted to. When she rejected him, he had nowhere to go, so Emma ignited this passion and lit a fire under him. In “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square,” she sings, “Poor young rich boy, poor young bourgeois, masturbates to a vaudeville tart, what a waste of a fiery heart,” and she held a mirror up to him and he saw that he had something to give. Well, that happened to be explosives for Coalhouse, but that was his talent. And afterward, he went to support Emiliano Zapata, so he went the revolutionary-road route.
VCOS: What surprised you the most in researching Emma Goldman?
MEGHAN: Well, first I thought she was a proponent of violence. But when you do your research on her, she was anti-violence but she understood that people were so oppressed to such an extent that violence was the only course they had left to fight with. I’m extremely anti-violence. I’m an angry woman, but I hate violence. I think it’s one of the worst problems we have today. And Emma inspired people to violence. She inspired Leon Czolgosz to kill McKinley. And I did not know that. I read about that and then I saw Assassins, which confirmed it. (laughs) I found that to be a very disturbing show. I just couldn’t believe they turned that subject into a musical. It was very well done, but I never want to see it again. I grew up upper middle-class in a comfortable existence, with a radical mother, but I’ve never starved. Even though I’ve been discriminated against because I’m a woman, it wasn’t blatant.
VCOS: It never is. That’s the most insidious kind of discrimination.
MEGHAN. Right. In my song, I sing about these workers that went on strike, and their children are starving and dying. That line shocked me. But she says, “But they are holding firm and we must support them.” So this is the sacrifice they make. This is what they’re willing to tolerate in order for things to change. I can’t even imagine going through what the people went through who she was supporting. I can imagine it as an actor, but I’ve never lived it. I don’t doubt that I would have followed her, in fact, I’m sure I would have.
VCOS: So now that you’re back here, you’re getting all these juicy character roles, aren’t you?
MEGHAN: I am! Now, I really marketable! Before this I was the “quirky sidekick” (laughs). Community theater costs you, though. It’s costing me a lot of time and energy to do this, so I got my credential in early childhood education and now I can “plant the seeds.” But acting is my passion and it’s worth it. We don’t have state-supported theater, unfortunately, but don’t tell Emma about state-supported anything! (laughs).
See Meghan Jones as Emma Goldman in Ragtime, which plays at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center through December 4. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.