Creating a “Herstoric” Team

Ragtime – a Musical on Race,
Immigrants and Innovation

Through May 14
Demens Landing, St. Pete
Details here

American Stage’s Ragtime, a musical based on the widely acclaimed E.L. Doctorow novel — and often remembered as a film starring Howard Rollins in the breakout roll of Coalhouse Walker — is on through May 14 at downtown St. Pete’s Demen’s Landing Park.

The musical interweaves the story of a wealthy white family, an immigrant family and a Black family in turn-of-the-century New York, setting their human dramas against a rapidly changing historical environment.

With music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally, the Tony-award winning musical has been brought to St. Petersburg under the direction of the powerhouse talent of Erica Sutherlin.

Her recent turn directing the explosive and vibrant production of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman at American Stage proved the multi-hyphenated St. Pete “artivist” – Sutherlin is a film writer and director, as well as a performer and poet – remains among a new generation of change-makers in the Tampa Bay arts and culture scene.

Responsible for a number of “firsts” as a Black woman in Tampa Bay theatre, she acknowledges,  “I always want to be on the wave, the current, or pulse of change, so [this] moment was goal come true – not a dream but a goal, one in which I strive to foster and repeat.”


Erica Sutherlin

This time she leads a nine-piece band and a 20+-person cast made up of local teachers, community members, students – and even a “Broadway veteran.” Sutherlin notes that the most exciting part of the production has been building and working with her artistic team.

Sutherlin was given free reign to build her own team and pulled together a creative team largely made up of women – including a lead creative team made up of women of color.

“We talk a lot about the need for women of color to have more creative leadership opportunities in the industry – we can keep talking about it or do something.

“I choose to do something, so every time I have the opportunity to hire women of color in leadership roles, I try. And during this production, not only were we able to hire women of color – but the majority of my team was female.”

Her team collaborators include her Latina assistant director/fellow Alexa Perez, and musical director Latoya McCormick, choreographer Heather Beal-Himes and scenic director Teresa L. Williams – all Black women.

Her lighting designer, Dalton Hamilton, a white male – is also her former student from the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School.

Another of her former students, scenic painter Michaela Dougherty, and her assistant stage manager Charlotte Quandt, are also Black women.

Sutherlin acknowledges “all of the other females who joined the production” – including her stage manager, Chloe Dipaola; her costume team, including her former PCCA student Macy Smith, and Hannah Hockman; and her production fellows, Meyah Fortier and Megan Phillips.

She adds, “I cannot not thank enough, Scott Cooper, chair of Theatre at St. Petersburg College, for his continual partnership with American Stage and the theatre community in general – he’s always training his students to work in the real world.”

Sutherlin is also thrilled about the diversity she’s been able to bring to her casting decisions. “Super excited about the diversity in my cast. I know that the story calls for diversity but for me I truly tried to diversify in race, age, physicality, orientation and gender. For example, Grandfather is played by an Asian American female,” she shares.

The largely local cast gives award-worthy performances, including St. Pete resident and Broadway veteran Larry Alexander in the role of “Father,” and actor and theatre instructor at Dunedin High School Anthony Gervais as “Harry Houdini.” Senior director of Arts and Cultural Programming for Creative Pinellas Beth Gelman, and vocalist Siobhan Monique of Ancestral Funk and St. Pete nonprofit RaceWithoutIsm also grace the stage.

Two of American Stage’s educational program students, Nigel Bailey and Noah Jordan, are performing for the first time in one of the theatre’s park shows.

From outside the area, actors Dante Murray (Coalhouse Walker), Sarah Middough (“Mother”), Leah Stewart (Sarah), and Billy Goldstein (Tateh) all give stellar performances as well.

There were a number of challenges along the way to opening night – including paring down the number of actors playing 50 to 60 characters to just 21 actors.

Choreographer Heather Beal-Himes had to bring movement to life with a cast made up primarily of non-dancers, but expresses great satisfaction with the experience. “I grew up surrounded by Black women in charge – it is an environment I feel the safest and most creative. Being a part of this “herstoric” team is incredible. I feel seen, heard, and valued – particularly by the director, Erica Sutherlin. Working with her and the musical director, Latoya McCormick, has been such a joy.”

Sutherlin sums up her experience with satisfaction. “This production is so beautiful. You can see the hard work from the actors, musicians, the crew every night – just pouring their love of theatre into each moment.

“That’s what makes it so powerful even beyond the amazing score and story – the people who bring it to life every night.”

Through May 14
Wednesday to Sunday at 7:30 pm
Demens Landing
Bayshore Dr. SE and 2nd Avenue SE
St. Pete FL 33701


Originally published in The Weekly Challenger


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