Early in Ragtime, a wealthy New York suburbanite (Louis Hobson) crosses paths with an Eastern European immigrant (Joshua Carter) and his young daughter (Tatum Poirrier). The barrel-chested captain-of-industry type, having long secured his family's fortune, just boarded an ocean liner and is about to embark on a North Pole expedition/midlife crisis. Tateh, the immigrant, approaches the American shore from his vessel with unchecked optimism, even as he is covered in rags and mourning his late wife. As the two pass ships they sing about passing ships and wonder at each other's motivations. When they bid hello and goodbye to each other from a distance, the play tells the audience, as it will many more times, that these characters are different but the same.
Later in the first act, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Douglas Lyons), a successful Harlem pianist riding in a brand new car with his wife-to-be Sarah (Danyel Fulton) and their infant son, crosses paths with a group of unsurprisingly racist volunteer firemen who demand a toll from the black family in order to pass. When Walker Jr. leaves to find a police officer, the group vandalizes his car and defecates in the front seat. The Harlem pianist can't let this stand. Walker Jr. bought the car from Henry Ford himself, see. It was a testament to his hard work and a promise for a better life—Booker T. Washington's words on the need of patience and dignity in the black community still ringing in his ears.
5th Avenue's new production, directed by Peter Rothstein, plays out in this way—as it does in R.L Doctorow's 1975 novel and the Broadway debut nearly 20 years ago—as a broad parable on the racial divides in America during the early 20th century. These disparate-yet-intertwined experiences unfold across three character arcs: the matriarch of a wealthy upstate New York family (Kendra Kassebaum) questioning the bubble of her comfortable life amid social turmoil, Tateh's struggle to fend off starvation—let alone strike it rich—amid a labor revolt, and Walker Jr.'s realization that the American Dream does not apply to him. Around these characters, larger societal sea changes occur, contextually anchored by appearances from historical figures like J.P Morgan, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, and Emma Goldman.