Fleming displays full range of talent in his “New Rag”
ARTS & CULTURE EDITOR
The Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company premiered its final play of the 2014 season, “Scott Joplin’s New Rag,” last Thursday, Sept. 25 at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center Mainstage located downtown. The one-man show, written and performed by Robert Barry Fleming, was the latest in the Mo’olelo tradition of social justice theatre which emphasizes thought-provoking productions designed to challenge social constructs in historical and contemporary society.
Starring Fleming, a former professor in the University of San Diego’s theatre arts and performance studies department, the show attracted students and theater fanatics from all over San Diego. Among them was a group of USD freshmen students in the Social Justice Living Learning Community led by program director May Fu.
Also attending the play was Dr. Abraham Stoll, a professor in the English department as well as the USD graduate theater program. He spoke about the Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company and what the play can offer students.
“It’s actually a quite nationally renowned theater,” Stoll said. “Although it’s still rather small-scale because as part of its mission it makes an effort to bring theater from underrepresented groups to the stage. This one was about Scott Joplin so it’s really central to African American history.”
This particular play differed from many of the other performances at the theater in that there was only one person on stage the entire time. The primary concern going into a one-man play is usually whether or not the actor will be able to capture and hold the attention of the audience for the entire 75 minutes of the production. Stoll saw Fleming’s performance as revolutionary to the one-man play.
“Usually when you go to a one-man show, you kind of expect someone to be sitting there in period costume just sitting in a chair talking,” Stoll said. “This thing was something completely different.”
Stoll explained how Fleming blended contemporary art forms with traditional acting and piano playing to explore the struggles Joplin experienced as a black artist in a music industry dominated by white males.
“There was a lot of multimedia and a lot of visuals going up on the screen with voices and music dubbed over, but more than that was Robert Barry Fleming himself,” Stoll said. “One minute he’s sitting there playing a beautiful Scott Joplin Rag. Then he hops up from the piano and starts breakdancing. Then he starts acting beautifully. Then he’s rapping.”
The spoken word and rap pieces allowed Fleming to portray the thoughts and mind of Joplin, while taking a step out of the story and scenes set in the early 1900s.
Usually featuring some sort of background music and supporting visuals, the poetic pieces proved to be commentaries on the larger social structure and problems Joplin faced in it. Many students and members of the audience agreed that this enhanced the effectiveness of the message.
One of the show’s many themes is social stratification and hierarchy within industries, especially relating to race. It focuses on the power which people at the top can have over those working below them. That idea can certainly be observed today and the play allows the audience the opportunity to decide for themselves how it functions in their own world. That contemplation is the goal of the members of the Mo’olelo theater, and there is no doubt that experiencing “Scott Joplin’s New Rag,” will let students experience the mission of the theater in a new, stimulating way. The show will continue at the theater until Oct. 12.