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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

'Ragtime's' Music Man

For Lawrence Hamilton, every night as Coalhouse Walker is 'a very emotional journey' that he loves to take.

September 12, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long before he landed the pivotal role in "Ragtime: the Musical," Lawrence Hamilton learned to play ragtime, the music.

He absorbed it from a teacher who had heard it from the original source. Long before Leola Hatten gave him lessons in a schoolroom in Foreman, Ark., Hamilton said, she had been a friend of Scott Joplin, who emerged 100 years ago as ragtime's signature composer and piano player.

The sessions would be spent on young Lawrence's classical training; the ragtime jaunts were for dessert. "I would say, 'Please, play one of those things for me,' and she would go to town."

Now Hamilton is praised for his ivory tickling in "Ragtime." He plays the part of Coalhouse Walker, piano player extraordinaire and tragic hero of E.L. Doctorow's famous 1975 novel and its critically hailed Broadway adaptation.

"I get e-mails and compliments: 'Man, you can really play the piano,' " Hamilton said last week from Portland, Ore., one of many stops on his two-year tour with "Ragtime." The show begins a two-week run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center tonight.

Hamilton laughed heartily while relating his pianistic kudos from the show, considering he doesn't play a note in it.

He certainly could handle the gig, but stage logistics dictate that Coalhouse Walker's piano be a hollowed-out shell for the sake of speedy set changes and that the actual piano playing come from the pit orchestra. Hamilton fingers all the right notes as he mimes his piano workouts, but those who want to hear his playing will either have to trek to New York City, where he plays the organ at St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem when he is home, or await the release of two CDs he has in the works.

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Of course, it is Hamilton's singing and acting that got him his first shot on Broadway 20 years ago and more recently the part of Coalhouse Walker. He played Walker on Broadway for 1 1/2 years after inheriting the role from original cast member Brian Stokes Mitchell.

"Ragtime" plays out on a broad canvas, depicting some of the leading social currents--immigration, racism, the rise of show business and celebrity culture--that shaped America in the 20th century. At its heart, amid a cast of characters historical (Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington among them) and fictional, is Walker.

Racist thugs demolish his new Model T Ford, and he fails to get restitution through the legal system. Then he loses Sarah, his wife-to-be and mother of his son, when she is killed trying to plead his cause. Walker turns to terrorism, demanding that the man who started his downfall be turned over to him.

It is a demanding and wrenching part.

"It's a very emotional journey I go on every night, the gamut of emotions from happiness to total rage and outrage," Hamilton said. "It's a hard road to travel, but I love doing it."

For the outrage part, he can draw on his experiences as a black man who has been racially profiled and humiliated by cops and cab drivers.

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Hamilton's story about his early days in New York is an uncanny echo of Stevie Wonder's monumental narrative song, "Living for the City," in which an aspiring, educated young black man--just arrived from the South--steps off a bus in New York City and is immediately rousted and jailed for a crime he had nothing to do with.

In Hamilton's case, the bus incident took place in Weehauken, N.J. A woman's purse had been snatched, police boarded a Manhattan-bound commuter bus looking for a suspect and nabbed the first black man they saw.

"They put a gun to my head and said, '[Expletive], if you move, we'll blow your brains out.' " At the local lockup, he was strip-searched before he was able to convince the cops that he was not a criminal, but an actor on his way to dance class.

The indignities continue. "Just last week in New York City six cabs passed me by. I was trying to get home from church."

He also finds subtle slights in show business, wondering aloud whether a white actor playing the lead in a major touring musical wouldn't be given perks he says he has been denied--a limousine to transport him to and from the theater and more upscale hotel accommodations.

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Playing Coalhouse Walker gives him an outlet and a response to all that.

"You keep living and you keep fighting. I keep telling this story, and maybe one day somebody will do 'Ragtime' and it will be a thing from our past, about the way life used to be in America."

Hamilton got his start in show business embodying a much different American vision. After graduating from Henderson State University in Arkansas, where he majored in piano and voice, he went to work at Walt Disney World in a troupe called Kids of the Kingdom. A talent manager spotted him and hooked him up with contacts in the New York musical theater.

"The Wiz" and "Jelly's Last Jam," in which he played another piano player, Jelly Roll Morton, as understudy to Gregory Hines, are among his 15 Broadway credits.

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