BY CARY GINELL
Louis Baker has had a varied career in the entertainment world. As an actor, he studied under three prestigious performers: Bill Duke, Haile Gerima, and Debbie Allen. He has worked as a voiceover artist in the animation world, co-produces with his wife a family-centered web series called Faces of Offense, and has played a variety of roles on stage in shows such as Tommy, West Side Story, and The Wiz. But none of those parts are as meaningful to Louis as his current one – playing the historically-based author/orator Booker T. Washington in the Actors Repertory Theatre of Simi’s production of Ragtime. The show closes this weekend, but we cornered Louis after last Sunday’s performance to talk about his character in the context of the current political turmoil in America, which, unfortunately, is not that much different from what was depicted in E. L. Doctorow’s famous novel.
VCOS: When you auditioned for Ragtime, were you going for a specific role?
LOUIS: Initially, I was shooting for Coalhouse Walker. I felt a lot of passion connected to his story, but when I was offered the part of Booker T. Washington, it was a new introduction to me of him. I was actually quite surprised by my research that I relate more to Booker T. than I thought I would.
VCOS: Why is that?
LOUIS: There is a misunderstanding by some in my community – and I certainly can’t speak for all African Americans – that his passion for his people was one-sided. I don’t think you can make that judgment easily. It’s easy to look back in history and say that because of statements that he made regarding focusing on work is presenting a disservice to the whole purpose of what he stood for. Yes, he focused on work as kind of a compromise, so to speak, but his ideas were meant for long-term success in the grand scheme of things, if you’re looking at things from the standpoint of strategic thinking. Ultimately, his goal was equal rights, and during that time, his rationale more or less leaned towards economics. We need to put people to work, we need to eat, so give us our portion and let us work with that and we won’t get involved with politics. That’s one school of thought. W.E.B. DuBois had another school of thought, but both are needed. I think Coalhouse leans more toward DuBois’ way of thinking, meaning we can have this now, and to some regard, I certainly agree. But having done the research, I learned a lot more about his stance than just the simplified impression people had of him. And I was impressed and was able to add that to the character.
VCOS: Does the character come across more as a pacifist than the real Booker T. Washington was?
LOUIS: In this show, he is basically a pacifist, but you don’t get his full story. You just know that he comes in as a mediator between the police and Coalhouse, and it makes you wonder whether he was in with the police on this. No. Absolutely not. Honestly, Booker T. is really hoping to bring about peace for Coalhouse’s character. In his mind, he’s thinking that he’s doing the right thing. He’s established a relationship with very highly placed, powerful people who happen to be white. And there is no shame in that. Slavery had ended less than 50 years before this storyline and people were getting used to the idea of tolerance and living together amongst people of color. Booker T. worked hard advocating the races working together and working out their differences. But then along comes Coalhouse, who has just had it with the racism and injustice against him, and rightfully so, but Booker T. doesn’t want Coalhouse’s rage to dismantle everything that he had established.
VCOS: When you play a fictional character, you are allowed a lot more latitude in your interpretation than when you play a non-fictional, real-life character. Do you feel at all restrained in fitting your portrayal within historical guidelines, or are there ways you are able to add another dimension to your impressions of your character?
LOUIS: I don’t feel constrained at all because it’s written in a way where I do have room to evolve a strategy that is within Booker T. I’m given a world, a space in time, and some dialog, and within that space, I get to choose my breath. And so, I choose where to breathe and how to breathe within the confines of the space and dialog, and that gives me great opportunities for creativity.
VCOS: Was there any film footage of Booker T. Washington that you were able to see to get some insight into his physicality or speaking style?
LOUIS: I did watch a few on line and I listened to different parts of his autobiography and I pick up something different every time I hear it. I found out that, secretly, he was funding civil rights cases, hoping for a better resolve, so, again, he was playing for the long term. That leads me to believe that he wasn’t compromising for the sake of compromising, but using this as more of a strategy for a long-term play for equal rights.
VCOS: The two main political figures in Ragtime are Booker T. and Emma Goldman. How do you compare the two?
LOUIS: I think they’re both needed to make it work. They both add spice to the story which, in life, causes one to reflect on the truth and kind of reset what our foundational values are. These two characters make you think. They make you challenge the status quo.
VCOS: Do they ground the characters they are paired with? Booker T. with Coalhouse and Emma with Younger Brother?
LOUIS: In a way they do. They do ground them. They add a perspective that represents not necessarily a polar opposite, but certainly different perspectives. It cuts from the root their need for change, and both are very vocal and unapologetic about it, but the difference is that Emma Goldman wants change NOW and wants people to listen to her tell them how to do this. She incites a lot of passion towards her main point, that we are all human beings and we need to leave a legacy that shows that we are credible and shows that we have this gift of life that allows us to make decisions that are poignant in changing the tide of tyranny and hate.
VCOS: And Booker T. recognizes that it’s a longer process, doesn’t he?
LOUIS: Yes. He was born in slavery and experienced the horrors of slavery growing up. When he reached his teenage years, the Civil War had ended and that was still fresh in his memory. I would imagine he had overwhelming emotions from time to time when thinking about his task. So this allowed him to have a different perspective of thought. He saw the slaves who ran away and those who gripped up and tried to revolt. And he’s seen the results of that. But he’s also known freedom, but recognizes the fact that people were working but not getting paid fair wages. And also the type of work was not the same. And the type of education was still spotty. Before, education for African Americans was illegal. Now it was legal, but they would get it where they could and it wasn’t always the best. You still couldn’t go into a white school because you were still looked at as a second class citizen. So what you’re seeing is the aftermath of slavery and having to fight for food as well as dignity in this parallel world that he is now gripped with. Now that there is no “master,” there is no guarantee of food or shelter. They now have to fend for themselves. Booker T. is looking at the bigger picture – the problems are larger than just him and we need to compromise, so he laid out this strategy and was very eloquent in doing so.
VCOS: Looking at this production of Ragtime, the timing of it was not accidental. Opening day for this production was one week before the presidential election. Considering the election’s outcome, there was much emotion exhibited by members of the cast and crew. Did any of that affect your portrayal?
LOUIS: Everything affects my portrayal. I’m married and a father of two. That affects my portrayal. You use the elements of life to lace in the breath of your story. And absolutely, you use those things as an actor as a fuel to help paint your picture. Certainly the timing of this musical was divine, in a sense, because we didn’t plan on the events being what they are now. The story that we are telling is so relevant and so poignant that, hopefully, there will be a catharsis. In the days of the Greeks, when tragedies occurred, they would put on a satyr play, with the hope that there would be a catharsis. We are citizens of this great nation and we are the only ones who can turn the tide. It is each person’s responsibility to do so. If this show, in any way, causes a heart to change or a mind come to a realization of a unified focus, than so be it. Let the characters speak and let your hearts be moved.
VCOS: Well, there are about 64 million people in this country who need to see this show.
LOUIS: (laughs) Yeah. I agree.
Ragtime closes December 4 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.