Leo Ash Evens, center in tallit, plays Jewish immigrant Tateh and Sydney Walker Freeman, on his right, plays his daughter in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of “Ragtime.” (Photo/Kevin Berne)
Leo Ash Evens, center in tallit, plays Jewish immigrant Tateh and Sydney Walker Freeman, on his right, plays his daughter in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of “Ragtime.” (Photo/Kevin Berne)

‘Ragtime’ in Mountain View puts spotlight on Jewish characters (and actors)

Early in the musical “Ragtime,” actors playing Jewish, Italian and Haitian immigrants sing “A Shtetl Iz Amereke” upon arriving at Ellis Island.

As the title of the song suggests, some of the lyrics are in Yiddish — a language that 12-year-old actor Sydney Walker Freeman does not speak. Yet the rising eighth-grader at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Union City said she had no problem learning the song.

Sydney Walker Freeman
Sydney Walker Freeman

“I have been working on Hebrew recently for my bat mitzvah,” she told J., “so the pronunciation wasn’t an issue.”

Freeman is one of three young, local Jewish actors who scored roles in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of “Ragtime,” which opens today at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts and runs through June 26. (The show was originally slated to open in April 2020 but was postponed after only a week of rehearsals as the Bay Area went into pandemic lockdown.)

Based on the bestselling 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, the show interweaves the stories of three families — white, African American and Eastern European Jewish — as they struggle to navigate U.S. society at the dawn of the 20th century. The original 1998 Broadway production won four Tony Awards, including best book by Terrence McNally, best score and best performance by a featured actress (Audra McDonald).

Ruth Keith
Ruth Keith

Ruth Keith shares with Sydney the role of a young Jewish girl from Latvia, known only as “Little Girl” in the script. A 15-year-old rising 10th-grader at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, Keith said the show addresses some “pretty heavy” topics, including bigotry and poverty. Several racial slurs are uttered or sung, including antisemitic ones.

During rehearsals, the actors have mostly censored the words or used substitutes, she said. “All the actors have been very respectful about it,” noted Keith, who has appeared in professional productions of “A Christmas Carol” and “Mary Poppins.”

Like Sydney, Keith said her Jewish upbringing helped prepare her for this show, as well as for a career in the performing arts. “That’s what got me into singing,” she said. “I say it’s ‘Frozen’ and Adele, but it was really growing up going to synagogue and singing the prayers.”

Joshua Parecki
Joshua Parecki

Joshua Parecki, 14, plays a non-Jewish character known as “Little Boy” who befriends “Little Girl.” He said one of the best parts of being involved in this production has been “getting to meet other Jewish actors and getting to see Jewish characters on stage.”

A student at Borel Middle School in San Mateo, Parecki said “Ragtime” contains an important — and still relevant — lesson for audiences.

“I just hope they learn acceptance,” he said. “And I hope that they can embrace differences and learn about different cultures and different ways that people have to struggle to fit in.”

For veteran actor Leo Ash Evens, who plays Tateh, the bearded father of “Little Girl,” this show marks his return to the stage after a long pandemic-induced hiatus.

“The rug was pulled out from under our feet, and it’s always felt a little unfinished and unsettled,” he said about the two-year postponement of the show. He admitted that he is still shaking off some of the rust from not working regularly during the pandemic. (Most of the actors who were involved with the 2020 production have returned for this run, he said.)

Raised in a Jewish home outside Pittsburgh, Evens, 42, has performed on Broadway, including with McDonald in 2016 in “Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” He said he has stayed in touch with her, and when he told her he was cast as Tateh, she replied by email with lyrics from the show: “Make them hear you.”

Tateh struggles to support himself and his daughter as an artist who sells silhouettes on the street, but he eventually achieves success in the film industry. “There are so many dark plot lines, and just when you think he’s down and out, he finds a way,” he said. “You’re always rooting for him.”

While the main Jewish roles in “Ragtime” are being played by Jewish actors, the question of whether non-Jewish actors should be hired to play Jewish roles — sometimes referred to as donning “Jewface” — remains a hot topic of debate. Recently, some expressed anger online after Netflix released photos of actor Bradley Cooper, who is not Jewish, wearing a larger prosthetic nose as part of his costume in a Leonard Bernstein biopic. Asked to weigh in on the debate, Evens said, “I think it’s a slippery slope. I’m an openly gay actor, and I don’t belive that a gay actor needs to play a gay role. We are playing make-believe, in the sense that we are not those people. We are representing [the characters] to the best of our ability.”

However, he added that it’s a “perk” when he books a Jewish role “because I have that much more layering that I can bring to it, and there’s an honesty to it.”

TheatreWorks casting director Jeffrey Lo told J.: “We encourage actors to bring their personal life experiences and histories to the parts they play, which brings a wonderful level of depth to a character. But in terms of casting, like any employer we are not allowed by law to ask about religious affiliation before considering someone for a role. We do list thorough character descriptions and find that actors are often drawn to parts that mirror their own lives, and we love seeing how that can bring a real richness to the entire work.”

Sydney, who appeared in a 2018 TheatreWorks production of “Tuck Everlasting,” will celebrate her bat mitzvah in September at Temple Beth Torah in Fremont. She said her role in “Ragtime” has helped her connect with her own family’s history.

“I have family members who came over [from Eastern Europe] as young women, and it was really hard for them, but they did get on their feet and became successful,” she said. “So it’s really amazing for me to be able to tell their story.”

“Ragtime”

June 2-26 at Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. Mountain View. $30 and up  (discounts for educators, seniors and 35 and under). Proof of vaccination and masks required.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.