‘On the Wheels of a Dream’: Shayla Lowe and Jamar Brown on Playing Sarah and Coalhouse in ‘Ragtime’ at Arts Collective@HCC

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They call it Ragtime, yes they do! Continuing on in the ‘On the Wheels of a Dream’ interview series, I’ve sat down with Shayla Lowe and Jamar Brown, playing Sarah and Coalhouse in the HCC Arts Collective’s production of Ragtime to get inside their minds and find out just what Ragtime means for them.

Shayla Lowe and Jamar Brown. PhotoArt by Cheri.
Shayla Lowe and Jamar Brown. PhotoArt by Cheri.

Thank you both for spending some time with me today. Let’s start be getting the readers at DCMetroTheaterArts familiar with who you are and where in the area they might have seen you recently.

Shayla: I am Shayla Lowe and I am playing Sarah in Ragtime. Most recently I was in The Wiz at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Baltimore, I played Addaperle the ‘feel-good’ girl. Full time by day I am an analyst with Verizon wireless, I’ve been there about nine years. So analyst by day, mom and actress and singer by night.

Jamar: I am Jamar Brown and I am playing Coalhouse. Most recently I did 454 for the National Gallery of Art and we did that for six months. It’s about the 54th Massachusetts regiment in the Civil War. Prior to that I was over here doing Rent at Silhouette Stages, I played Collins. That show was a lot of fun. I work for Parks and Recreation during the day, I’m a supervisor there. I’m in charge of the aquatics facilities for the city of Frederick. I stay out of everybody’s way, way out of the way up in Frederick.

What was it about Ragtime that drew you to this production? What made you want to audition?

Jamar: Ragtime’s a cool show. It’s a really cool show and I think it’s a show that any kind of musical theatre person falls in love with because you get to belt your face off all the time. It has a great book and it tells a great story. It’s almost hard to accept that this isn’t real, that it’s not a true story. It incorporates real historical figures but it’s basically fiction. It has great music. For me, I just love the music. For a lower-range baritone male to actually get to belt your face off and not be singing sad songs the entire time? That’s amazing. To not be singing sad songs the entire time? That’s great! I get some angry songs in this! You know, I’m not digging holes or ‘go down, Moses’ with these songs so I really love it.

Shayla:  For me the biggest draw was David Gregory. David brought me out of my break. I took a break. The Wiz was over in June of 2013 and I haven’t been on the stage since. I took a break to be with my kids and my family. He brought me out and once I started digging into the story, I was drawn into how many things really happened in that time. I don’t think I really realized, like Jamar said, the history that’s incorporated into this story. You think more about the music part. You don’t really think about the characters so much. You realize that as you start to live through them that they’re not real but that you have so many facets of the show that are real that really did happen all wound up into that.

Especially with the role of Sarah it’s very parallel in my life. It runs very parallel to me. Now I didn’t bury any babies or anything like that, thank God for that, but just the experience of loving, and trying to find your way. Identifying your life with people that are close to you, with a man that is close to you, with those children; all that is very much my own life.

That is the perfect segue into my next question of how you find yourself relating to these characters that you portray and whether or not having a strong relatability to these characters makes it easier or harder to portray them.

Shayla: I find that where are lives are not parallel there is still an arch that transcends into it. While it’s not the same the feeling and the mindset of it brings me into it. We’ve all experienced, especially as women, we’ve all felt that sorrowful time where we’ve realized we’ve lost something or someone. To be able to balance the emotions of that tugs on me a lot. It can be really heavy. To be able to live it through her is just really awesome.

Jamar: Believe it or not I have not shot anyone. Coalhouse and I do have our similarities. Coalhouse is a very stubborn man. I’m stubborn. We definitely both dream big. I think that he is a man of a different time. There are a lot of things and liberties that I have living in 2014 that he didn’t have in 1906. That changes your perspective on the world. For him to be able to go out and buy a car, and to be able to raise a family, that’s amazing. For someone like that in that time to be able to do those things and then to have a music education, that’s all just so amazing. I’d like to think that had I lived back then that I would have been something like that.

Coalhouse certainly was extreme. He had a couple anger issues. It really was the total of just living in that historical era— we’re dealing with Jim Crow, we’re dealing with black people not having rights, all of these things that people will see in the show— a lot of injustices that put that anger there.

Shayla: It’s funny when you say that Coalhouse is extreme. I see him as being extreme on the justice side while Sarah is extreme on the love side. She’s very passionate that’s exactly what it is. He is too, but it’s so different, two different types of passion. They’re on such opposite ends of the spectrum, I think that’s why he ran and when they came back together, that’s why it happened that way.

Jamar: You know something else? Coalhouse, and I don’t think this is something that ever really gets talked about because he so often gets played by a much older man, but all this is happening to a young man. I mean I’m only 26, now I know I look much older, but when you think about it, men in those days had to age a lot faster. They had to become a man a lot sooner than men nowadays.

Shayla: That’s good, Jamar, that’s good.

Jamar: It’s just something to keep in mind. You still have the youthful naivette of a young man with the responsibility of a much older man. Finding that balance can be tricky.

You said something just now, Jamar, that is really intriguing. You said that Coalhouse struggles a lot more than you do with your life in 2014, do you think that makes you look at or identify with your life any differently now having played this character? And Shayla you can answer this question as well.

Jamar: Yes. The short answer. Which I know is exactly what you were hoping to avoid. But the answer is yes. Living in 2014, still to this day, I will say that I am black before I say that I am anything else. I also have had to deal with struggles of being a gay man in 2014. It has gotten much better over the past few years, but it has still been a struggle. To have all of these triumphs in the gay community, marriages being legalized in more and more places and all of these things are truly wonderful. But when I’m on an elevator with an elderly white woman, I am still a black guy. She is still clutching her purse. I don’t think I look that intimidating, but that stereotype still stands in 2014. Above all, being involved with this show has reminded me the history of why that is. I’m going to leave it at that, I don’t want to piss anybody off.

Shayla: I think with Sarah it doesn’t’ make me look at my life differently, at least I don’t think, and I think that’s because I identify with her so much. I’m from Ohio, and ever since I was a little girl my grandmother always said to me “you are just a southern belle at heart.” I think that whole matronly thing is what everyone gets from me. Jamar will tell you—

Jamar: She is motherly to everyone.

Shayla: Everyone. I have gifts, and God has given me so many gifts and talents in being able to do this but the one thing I’ve always wanted is to be a wife, a mom, and a caretaker. That’s just the way it’s always been for me. Sarah and I are so similar that it is almost a little bit creepy. It doesn’t make me think of my life any differently because of that similarity. It makes me appreciate it, it makes me see what role I’m able to play through her. Coalhouse says that he won’t’ marry her until he gets what he’s after in life but even then her focus in life is to help him get to where he wants to get to.

Jamar: Appreciation. That’s a good word. These roles really do make us appreciate our own lives.

We glossed briefly over Coalhouse and his car. How old is he when he finally purchases the car?

Jamar: You know, it doesn’t say. Neither the book nor the script. Back then people didn’t just go out and buy a car, they still had chamber pots in some places. But I think Coalhouse is supposed to be in his mid-twenties. Now, like I said, I’ve never gotten to see a Coalhouse played by someone that young. I’ve always seen him played more toward the middle-age range. So for me, Coalhouse is in his 20s and getting his life together.

I think where I meant to go with that, I’ve lost my train of thought because you’ve had such fascinating answers, is do you have one of those early life experiences that was super exciting for you, where you were saving up for something the way Coalhouse was striving for that car?

Jamar: Going to college was definitely a big deal in my family. I wasn’t the very first in my family, but I was the very first in my immediate family to actually go to and complete college. Oh, but my first car! I remember my first car! 1998 Ford Escort Station Wagon! Oh yes…it was a beauty. There is a certain sense of pride that everyone— well I know that every man gets it, I don’t know that every woman gets it, I would assume that everybody feels that way when they get their first car.

But that first car, it did not end the way Coalhouse’s first car ends, but you see…I did not understand that oil goes inside of cars—

Shayla: Hey!! We are so best friends right now, I didn’t know that either!

Jamar: I didn’t put any oil in it. I kept wondering what this sound was when I would be driving it, you know the ticking sound? And then one day— it just— Kaboom. It just went. Lesson learned. I don’t think Coalhouse has that problem. His car gets taken care of before he can forget to put oil in it.

Shayla: My first car was 1996 Mitsubishi Galant and we nicknamed her The Silver Streaker. My dad paid half and I paid the other half. And I too almost lost The Silver Streaker because I did not put oil in it. My dad was very upset,  he’s a major mechanic, and he was like “You don’t hear this thing ticking? It’s ticking like a bomb’s about to go off!” And I just had no idea, I just got in the car and drove. When it was time to go out, you just went out and had a good time.

Jamar: Right! Put gas in it and go! No one ever said it needed more than gas.

Shayla: Cars need gas. That’s it. But the biggest thing for me in that field of ‘saving up’ and being really excited was being from Ohio and saving up to move here. I saved up to be able to buy my stuff for my dorm room, and all that. It was so exciting, that feeling of independence. I’m the oldest of five girls. It was time to go. And I haven’t been back. I go visit, but I never wanted to move back. The independence factor was so exciting for me. And I imagine that is what Coalhouse is feeling too, that arrived feeling.

Jamar: Yeah, “I’ve arrived. This is mine and it’s a tangible representation of what I’ve achieved.” Sometimes you need, what is it that they say in The Wizard of Oz when the Tin Man gets his heart, he didn’t need a heart he needed a testimonial? You need to have something physical to hold onto and say “look at what I got.” The diploma, the car, something you can feel to prove that you achieved something, that you arrived.

Shayla: I think for Sarah, Coalhouse is her “look at what I got.” I think that’s really it. For him it was the car, and her. We were in rehearsal the other day and during “Wheels of a Dream” Coalhouse says “…a country that lets a man like me own a car, raise a child, and spend a life with you…” so Sarah isn’t first, she’s really not even second, she’s third. So for her, the baby was not first either, Coalhouse was. She always put herself third, the baby was second, and Coalhouse was first. I think that her ‘arrived’ and her sense of ‘I’ve got it’ is Coalhouse.

Jamar: I think that is so beautiful. The second act exists because he feels guilty about not putting her first.

Shayla: Yes! You’ve got it. Thank you!

Jamar: Alright, now let’s go do the show.

Shayla: This is my friend, right here. We really do have a bond in working together in these roles. We hit it off.

You guys are really great at steering your answers to my next question. I was just about to ask what it’s been like working with each other in this very intense relationship on stage? This is not your typical “lovers” or even “young ingénues in love” for Coalhouse and Sarah, what has that been like for the two of you?

Shayla: We had never worked together before. It did take us a little bit.

Jamar: We had to get our feet in the water—

Shayla: But once we did, and once we learned to trust each other, we were good. David had told us, “don’t worry about, trust that the other is going to be there.” And once we got that, we were set.

Jamar: Sarah doesn’t really say much, Coalhouse pretty much does all the talking.

Shayla: Maybe that’s why Sarah doesn’t say much.

Jamar: Well…perhaps. But there is so much strength in just her presence alone. And Shayla has an amazing presence; just to stand next to her is an amazing thing. It gives Coalhouse strength to feel the strength of Sarah near him. That’s what he craves so much and that’s why he needs her back.

The Director’s name keeps popping up in your answers, what has the experience of working on this musical beast with David Gregory at helm been like for you guys?

Jamar: David! Yaaassss!

Shayla: We love David! I’ve actually worked with him before, for Dreamgirls. That was actually my first show back. I hasten to say how many years I had taken off, but it was my first show back in about ten years. David directed me in Dreamgirls, once again pulling me back onto the stage. It’s always awesome working with him. With Dreamgirls it was a lot for me to come into, but David’s concepts are awesome. When you actually can see them and not just hear him talking about them—because he gets you so excited just listening to him talk about them— but when they actually come forth, you can finally see how his mind works and it is just amazing. His mind is just somewhere else, on another planet, but it is just so amazing.

Jamar: I have never worked with David before; this is my first experience with him. So far everything that everyone has said about him has been true, he’s a great guy. I got to see him recently as an actor, which was really amazing, both over at Toby’s for In The Heights and at University of Maryland they just did Spring Awakening. He definitely has a vision. You can tell when you’re working with a director that doesn’t really have a clear sight of where they want to go in the beginning and they sort of make it up as they go along. Not David. He is a man with a plan. He knows what he’s coming for and he knows how he’s going to get it and it is brilliant. If he was just talking about it, I mean I would do it, but I wouldn’t believe it until I saw it. But he has this plan and that really makes you trust him. I trust David.

Shayla: You can trust him. He’s so not intimidating and he makes you feel comfortable working with him.

Jamar: Always big shout outs to David!

Shayla: This is his last hoorah before he leaves for Spain, so knowing that I knew I had to get involved with this show. It’s awesome to work with him on both sides of the stage. I was Shug Avery’s understudy in The Color Purple over at Toby’s, I actually closed the show as Shug. So to work with him on stage and then to have worked with him as a Director; the awesomeness is just on both sides of his work. He’s so amazing.

If you weren’t playing Sarah and Coalhouse, who would you want to be playing?

Jamar: In this show?

Shayla: Tell the truth. Or I will.

Jamar: Mother. I love Mother! Santina, I’m coming for you! I love Mother’s songs, I love her as a character, she’s great.

Shayla: I think for me it would have to be either Coalhouse…and I mean Sarah’s friend is just a given, but the other one that I’m drawn to is Evelyn Nesbit. It’s really fun for me, the whole quirky and cutesy notion. There’s not a whole lot of depth to her so she’s fun.

Jamar: She had a life. You know she’s one of the historical characters, the real ones, and a lot of people don’t know that. I was talking to some of my friends and they didn’t realize that she’s for real and that she really happened. Wheeeee!

Shayla Lowe and Jamar Brown with the cast of 'Ragtime': Caelyn Sommerville, Torin Ross, Brandon Love, Theodore Yu, Dave Guy, Cory Jones, and Emily Morgan. PhotArt by Cheri.
Shayla Lowe and Jamar Brown with the cast of ‘Ragtime’: Caelyn Sommerville, Torin Ross, Brandon Love, Theodore Yu, Dave Guy, Cory Jones, and Emily Morgan. PhotArt by Cheri.

What challenges has the music in this musical presented to you guys?

Jamar: Oooh, that question!

Shayla: Yes! This question!

Jamar: I think that for me this is the first time that I’ve actually had to sing this much in a show as far as legit singing goes. I’m big on doing character voices and that sort of thing. But in this show you’ve got to sing. I’m using a lot of my range in this show. Never all, darling, never all, I always have some left, haha. But there is a lot of it. It is a lot of singing. It is a beast of a musical! But it’s fun.

Shayla: I think the hardest thing for me with this one was belting. I can identify with this because David brought it to my attention, he said, “you’re afraid to belt too early, just give it everything you have, don’t worry about it.” So that’s one of the many things he’s helped me with, and Mayumi (Mayumi Griffie, Musical Director) is an awesome Musical Director. She can sing every note in the show, any not that anybody sings she can sing it. Her range is stunning, she is absolutely a whiz.

Jamar: I second that awesome. Mayumi is awesome. She’s coming for my role. She’s coming for Coalhouse.

Shayla: To identify those moments and what they mean to me, when I’m belting, that really opened me up to be able to speak through the song. The hardest part of that was wanting to and just not really being sure. David and Mayumi helped tremendously with that. You know, that first part of the show is it for me.

Jamar: What we were talking about? I’m losing it, I’m getting old.

Shayla: Getting old. At 26. We were talking about musical challenges.

Jamar: Right, thank you. I always approach every song like I’m telling a story. In this show, I think Ahrens and Flaherty are great at making each song a story unto itself and each song building into another story. I love telling these stories.

Shayla: I was thinking that I didn’t want to tell my story too harsh. To turn people off, there’s no way I couldn’t, I had my own children sitting in rehearsal asking me, bawling and crying “What did you bury that baby?” When I sing “Daddy’s Son” that’s what people have in their mind, “Oh, so now you care.” And it’s hard to put her story out there without vilifying her.

Is there a song in the show that you don’t get to sing that you desperately wish that you could sing?

Jamar: Ok, I’m not going to lie. I do love “Back to Before/Journey On” which is one of Mother’s songs. But there a song “The Night That Goldman Spoke” and that might be my favorite song in the whole show. The lyrics are so harsh, but it still has this nice little bounce to it. She’s singing about some crazy stuff. Emma Goldman, man.

Shayla: You know, I like that song too because of the contrast it provides. She’s saying all this stuff, but that’s so life. That’s so how we live. People will say something to you but you will hear something totally different. This musical has so many layers and levels to it. I think my song would have to be, and I told them I’m going to pop up out of my box to sing it, “Til We Reach That Day.” I’m in a box at that point and I told them I was going to sit up and just start singing along. Between that song and “Our Children” that song really chokes me up, and then “Buffalo Nickel” is so fun for me. I think those are my two.

How does Ragtime differ from or is maybe similar to other shows that you’ve done in the past?

Shayla: It’s pretty similar for me because I’m normally the oldest woman in the show. This show is so good because these guys are so open to listening. Maybe it’s just where I am right now in life, but this cast is just so open to listening to me when I put suggestions out there. It’s fun to be in an atmosphere with them, and just to see them and the excitement that they have, it’s thrilling. Not to mention Mr. Ray, who plays Booker T. Washington, he is one of the biggest blessings in this show. He has imparted so much wisdom on us. When he delivers some of those lines as Booker T. Washington we’re all just stunned.

Doing this show here, everybody has a desire to want to do it. It’s fun to watch everybody, it keeps the circle of life going.

Jamar: I like that you just said the ‘circle of life’ thing. Somebody once told me, “Shows come into our lives at certain times for a reason.” For me that’s very on point in my life right now. I have something to keep me focused here in my old age. But I love this experience; it’s been exactly what I need at the right point in my life.

What has been the most fun part of this process?

Jamar: I always have fun doing shows! It’s really hard for me to believe that there are people out there in the world who can do a show and not have fun doing it. I just feel like if you’re not having fun why are you doing it? I love it. The most fun part about it for me is just being in the show. Sharing the story, interacting with these great cast members? Casts become a family. For some reason when I started in this show I didn’t think that it would feel as strongly as it does because there are so many of us? There’s a lot of us! But we have that familial thing you get from shows and I love it.

Shayla: I have to say the same thing. And for me it’s a release. It’s a release and a relief to be able to do this. I really believe that what I am, and who I am, that I am really blessed to be able to do these things. Just to be able to communicate, to be able to take people out of their reality and take them somewhere else, even if it is just for two hours; I really am thankful to be able to have the privilege to do that. It’s a blessing. I think that’s why I’m here. When I started this show I did feel that it was going to be different, in the best way possible.

Why should people come and see Ragtime here at HCC?

Jamar: Because…

Shayla: We’re in it!

Jamar: Well, I was going to say, “because I said so,” but “we’re in it” works too. It’s an amazing story. It’s an epic story that is told like an epic story. It does not shy away from the story. I know it’s about to open on Broadway again, but you should come here to see it because we’re in it; that’s where the “we’re in it” part factors into it. Everybody who performs in this show tells a different story. Our director is bringing an amazing vision to this production. Every performer is bringing something unique to their characters. If you want to see the Jamar Brown rendition— you know, the 26-year-old rendition of Coalhouse Walker, you’ve got to come see it here. You can’t hear my voice changing as I put on this fabulous accent to make that last statement sound awesome, but seriously, you have to come see it here. You have to come see us, you have to come feel this energy of this cast and see David’s vision come to life.

Shayla: To see David’s vision, and to see the perspective; it will give you a greater appreciation for Ragtime and the story it tells. There are so many different ways this story could be told. And we’re telling it well.

Jamar: Community Theatre is something that I think often time gets a reputation of not being refined and not being professional enough—

Shayla: It gets discredited as amateur.

Shayla Lowe (Sarah). PhotArt by Cheri.
Shayla Lowe (Sarah). PhotArt by Cheri.

Jamar: Right, that’s the word, thank you. But that’s really not true. It is so worth it for this production to see what is being brought to the table by everyone, by the actors, by the designers, by David, by everyone. Just because a show is running on Broadway, yeah the budget’s bigger I can promise you that, but it doesn’t mean that the talent is better or that the talent is more dedicated than we are right here. We all want to be here, we all chose to audition and wanted to be a part of it. This is a labor of love.

Shayla: This is one of those things that you do because you love it. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t want to. There are other things we could be doing with our time, but we love this so much and are dedicated to it; we’re passionate about it. And that is true of every single person involved in this show. That’s what you’ll see when you see our show, passion, commitment, and dedication.

Jamar: Who wants to be doing anything else when you can be doing Ragtime right here? Which means you don’t want to be doing anything else but seeing Ragtime right here if you’re not already in it.

Shayla: It’s going to be awesomesauce. I cannot wait.

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Ragtime plays through May 18, 2014 at the Howard Community College’s Arts Collective in HCC’s Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center’s Smith Theatre— 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.

LINKS
On the Wheels of a Dream’ an interview with Ragtime Director David Gregory.

Arts Collective@HCC website.