San Diego native and Tony nominee Charl Brown heads cast of Moonlight’s ‘Ragtime’
Tony-winning 1998 musical also stars Bets Malone, Geno Carr and Brooke Henderson
For most of Charl Brown’s 25-year career as a professional theater artist, the musical “Ragtime” has been a touchstone in his life.
The 42-year-old San Diego native saw the epic musical in its 1997 U.S. premiere in Los Angeles while studying theater at the University of Southern California. And a 2002 “Ragtime” production at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista was one of the first shows he booked after earning his diploma from USC.
Back then, Brown was a member of the Moonlight musical’s ensemble and the understudy for the principal role of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Black ragtime pianist whose optimism and spirit are crushed under the weight of bigotry and intolerance in early 1900s New York.
Now, 20 summers later, Brown has returned to the Moonlight to star as Coalhouse in a new production of “Ragtime” that opens Wednesday, Aug. 17.
In the intervening decades, Brown spent two years in a European tour of “Hair”; played Coalhouse Walker at Performance Riverside in 2005; starred in three Broadway musicals; earned a Tony nomination for playing Smokey Robinson in “Motown: The Musical”; created his own solo show called “Smokey & Me”; and toured internationally for the past decade in “The Doo-Wop Project” concert act.
But despite all his achievements, the New York-based actor said returning home to San Diego to play Coalhouse again has been an important personal and career milestone.
“Getting to live as a Black man in this society over the past 20 years, I now have so much more experience to bring to this role,” he said. “We’re fortunate to be in Southern California, where we sort of live in a bubble. San Diego has its own issues regarding race, but, truly, it wasn’t until I went out in the world that I got to feel what it really meant to live my life as a Black man.”
Based on the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name, “Ragtime” is the story of three New York families whose lives gradually — and sometimes tragically — intersect: the loving but unfulfilled White middle-class housewife, Mother; the poor but industrious Jewish immigrant and single father, Tateh; and the striving Coalhouse Walker, who has fathered a child with Sarah, a washerwoman who lives with Mother.
In the Moonlight production, Mother will be played by Bets Malone, who Brown met in 1997 when they co-starred together in “Little Shop of Horrors” at San Diego’s now-defunct Starlight Theatre. Tateh will be played by Geno Carr, who was in the original Broadway cast of “Come From Away”; and Sarah will be played by Brooke Henderson, who starred as Ti Moune in Moonlight’s “Once On This Island” last summer.
Brown said the opening number of “Ragtime” — where the White, Black and immigrant characters come together in song and dance — brought tears to his eyes the first time he saw it in L.A.
“It’s so inclusive of the fabric of what America really is: these three different communities coming head to head and, yet, existing in the same space and time,” Brown said, adding that it reminded him of his teen years attending the happily integrated San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA).
“That experience fueled my empathy and ability to have an understanding of different people and cultures. ‘Ragtime’ truly became the pinnacle of everything I learned at SCPA. The opening number was the visualization of that,” he said.
Brown grew up singing in the junior and young adult choirs at Linda Vista Second Baptist Church, and performed as a teen at San Diego Junior Theatre (SDJT) and at SCPA. But it wasn’t until he saw the Duke Ellington-themed Broadway musical “Play On!” that he envisioned a life for himself in the theater. His career idol became, and still remains, Brian Stokes Mitchell, a fellow SDJT alum who originated the role of Coalhouse Walker.
Coalhouse’s signature song in “Ragtime” is “Make Them Hear You,” a heartbreaking call to action against racism. Brown said that in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years, the song feels more relevant than ever.
“Like Coalhouse, I was somewhat naïve to believe that because of my education and talent I might be granted the life I deserved based on merit. At 42, I’ve realized that isn’t necessarily true,” he said. “We still have a long way to go ... but we have made a lot of progress.”
When: Opens Wednesday, Aug. 17 and runs through Sept. 3. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Gates open at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Moonlight Amphitheatre, Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista
Phone: (760) 724-2110
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