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"Ragtime" explores the racial tensions of America's past, but its lead actor says the past still is all too present.

Ragging on Race

The epic Broadway musical "Ragtime," playing this week at the Landmark Theater, dramatizes the radical changes happening in America at the beginning of this century. It was a time when race relations were tentative at best, explosive and violent at worst. Now, with a new century just around the corner, things don't always seem to have changed much. Just ask actor Lawrence Hamilton.

"Sometimes I feel like a 1999 version of Coalhouse Walker," says Hamilton in his smooth, unhurried voice. He is talking about the character he plays in the stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel, a proud and hopeful man who is victimized by racism.

The Tony award-winning show covers a large variety of subjects by following three very different families whose lives unexpectedly intertwine over the years. One family consists of Ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., his estranged girlfriend and their newborn son. The dynamic musician spends the show trying to reunite his family. But the spiteful actions of a group of firemen drive him to violence and precipitate the play's climactic events.

While you might think the racial conflict in "Ragtime" seems more characteristic of ancient times, Hamilton arrives in Richmond with an ugly incident fresh in his mind. "On the Sunday night of Halloween, my driver and I almost came to blows," relates Hamilton. After a misunderstanding about the time Hamilton was supposed to be picked up, "the driver just started swearing at me. He was screaming and yelling. He called me all sorts of names, 'you stupid this, you stupid that,'" Hamilton says, including choice racial epithets. "While he was still yelling, I called his dispatcher on my cell phone and said, 'Do you hear this?'"

Hamilton eventually demanded that the driver stop the car. When the actor got out, the conflict seemed destined to get physical. "He said, 'Hit me, motherf—er. Hit me and I will own you.' I said, 'Slavery went out a long time ago. You'll never own me.'"

Hamilton points out that his experience is not unique. "You've got Danny Glover writing to the paper, saying he can't get a cab in New York City. You've got Jasmine Guy, clerks in stores telling her she can't afford to buy something. It's unfortunate that these kinds of things are not in the distant past," Hamilton says. "But it makes it clear that we've got a long way to go."

Hamilton says that a show like "Ragtime" can help heal old wounds and provide hope for the future. "It's about the triumph of the human spirit," he asserts. In the show, it's a white woman — simply called Mother — who initially takes in Coalhouse's girlfriend, Sarah, and her newborn infant. Mother's young son, called Little Boy, befriends Sarah and is confused when Father admonishes Mother for bringing the "Negroes" into the house.

"Little Boy loves Coalhouse, he loves Sarah. He's just excited by everything," says Hamilton. "When his father comes home and gets angry, [Little Boy] says, 'What is the problem? Why is everybody so mad?'" The actor sees a lesson in this scene. "Children have to be taught to hate. Mother teaches her son how to love."

Right now, Hamilton is loving his ongoing role in the "Ragtime" cast. "This company is the strongest I've been in, and I've been in all of them," he says. The show has received favorable reviews as it has toured the country. Audiences seem enthralled by the mix of history — real-life characters like Henry Ford and Harry Houdini make appearances in the show — and the peppy ragtime songs written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. "I see people weeping after the show," Hamilton says. "Men write me e-mails telling me it's the best thing they've ever seen."

Hamilton, now in his mid-40s, has been a fan of the jaunty syncopated melodies of ragtime music for a long-time. "My piano teacher, Leola Hatten, was a contemporary of Scott Joplin," he says. "I was in fifth grade and was fascinated watching her hands moving so fast across the keys."

Hamilton spends his time offstage developing other projects, including a recording of songs by Flaherty and Ahrens (in addition to "Ragtime," the pair scored "Once on This Island" and the recent animated film, "Anastasia"). He is also writing adult contemporary songs that he hopes to record next year and is reviewing plays with an eye toward producing them. "I'm trying to be as independent as possible," he explains.

The actor believes independence is the key to overcoming the tacit racism that still plagues the entertainment business. "You hear people saying things like, 'Black people shouldn't be doing Shakespeare,' but then saying there isn't racism. It boggles me when I see what's happening. People tell me we should be happy with the crumbs. I say no, I want a full

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