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New Play Celebrates Life Of Scott Joplin, The 'King Of Ragtime'

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September 22, 2014 1:10 p.m.

New Play Celebrates The Life Of Scott Joplin, The 'King Of Ragtime'


Robert Barry Fleming, both wrote and will star in one-man show, "Scott Joplin's New Rag: The Life and Times of the King of Ragtime Writers."

Related Story: New Play Celebrates Life Of Scott Joplin, The 'King Of Ragtime'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The sound of ragtime music is unmistakable, and it evokes a vivid sense of time and place. It brings us back to the turn of the last century, when America was becoming powerful and self-confident. But, it was also a time when a gifted African-American composer faced an uphill battle for artistic recognition. It was a time when his most ambitious compositions were unappreciated, and his most famous ragtime tunes almost forgotten after his death. The new play, Scott Joplin's New Rag: the Life and Times of the King of Ragtime Writers is about to be presented by the Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego. It represents the composer who attempted to bring the African-American experience into American classical music. I would like to introduce my guest, Robert Barry Fleming. He both wrote and stars in the one-man show. Welcome. What got you interested in telling the story?

ROBERT FLEMING: Since I was a kid, I, like many, laid the Maple Leaf Rag, and the Entertainer. Any of us who had piano lessons were introduced to his music, but did not know much about the man, honestly. Just the picture and the cameo. As I have matured and grown, his story became something that was really intriguing for all of the things that were missing from it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about ragtime music itself. Where does the name come from? What was the heyday?

ROBERT FLEMING: He described ragtime as being something born out of ragged notes on the piano. I think it is connected to a deeper meaning, in terms that it was born of a collision of cultures of African American and European influences. It was shocking to some in the way that probably rap and hip-hop are in contemporary times. People have the same kind of responses, how dangerous the music wise, and yet did not own it as something that was about being American, and about the diversity of who we are as Americans expressed through music.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What was Scott Joplin's musical education like?

ROBERT FLEMING: It was's body. He started on his own, and his mother cleaned houses for a family that had a gentleman named Julius Vice, a German Jew who helped to teach the kids music, science, and math, and because Scott's mother was the housekeeper, he actually took an interest in him because he heard him play. He said I will give him free lessons because he has something there. He identified him as one who had perfect pitch, and introduced him to Beethoven and Bach. That was the beginning of his foundation. Throughout his career, he stayed teachable, because he only had a little bit of formal training. Throughout his life, he studied with different people and augmented his work.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let us hear a little more, this is from Scott Joplin's most popular composition during his lifetime, Maple Leaf Rag:


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Scott Joplin had great success with Maple Leaf Rag. But, his more ambitious compositions had problems, didn't they?

ROBERT FLEMING: Yes, like many artists, their creative work sometimes resonates with the public and ideally the public will grow with them. That is a often rarity, and they will grow in a direction and the public will reject it. That was true for his work. Maple leaf was his greatest success, as he continued to develop more complex syncopation and more complex ideas, people were less intrigued by it. He moved into his life's work, the Opera Treemonisha, people really lost interest. He had quite a struggle and that creative way.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How much did you think racism and segregation played in his failure to make the leap from the more popular composer to a more serious composer he had ambitions to be?

ROBERT FLEMING: It was rather significant. He came to maturity during the post-Reconstruction period in America. It was one of the most fascinating and virulently racist periods of the nation. He had this very uplifting kind of music that in his mind was truly American music, but was a real leap for people who were just a step away from thinking of African Americans as property, not as people. The idea that this could be our national music was a very combative idea.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us about your play. We learned about his life, but how do we learn about it?

ROBERT FLEMING: I am interested in what is often described as total theater. So, the traditional one person show was not as interesting to me. I wanted something where music, movement, visual, text, they all had equal primacy. So the event you are coming to see would be one that is mediated. It has spoken word poetry, as well as soliloquy. It has poetic movement, song and dance, lots of juxtapositions. It is a pastiche piece in the terms of the way it is told.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You play fifteen different roles?

ROBERT FLEMING: I play at least fifteen. We are using fifteen as the safety number, but as I have rewritten, many characters come in and out. Some of them are voiced over, some told through movement, some are done like a silent movie with subtitles.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is a new production. It has not been played anywhere before. What role has Mo'olelo had in the abdomen and the polishing of this piece?

ROBERT FLEMING: Mo'olelo is my creative home here. I had the good fortune of doing three shows there. This is my first under Lidia Fort. It means everything, that they give an opportunity to be able to do something this experimental, this radical experiment of the project. That is huge, in terms of artistic sport.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you are telling the story, there is a sad court to it. Scott Joplin died quite young, and in sad circumstances.

ROBERT FLEMING: He did indeed. He was one of many African-American performers and many young man who had contracted syphilis and died from tertiary syphilis. Just before the advent of a cure, he was too far along to take advantage of that. I'm sure his economic circumstances impacted his healthcare as well. What I found so inspiring about this story is how he had obstacle after obstacle after obstacle, and he kept at it. He kept writing, and it seemed to be his lifeblood. He was not the most distinguished player. But the idea that he wrote this music down for posterity was the reason we have him today. It is not because of the recordings, it is because we have those notes on paper.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A lot of his work was almost forgotten, until there was a revival in the 60s and 70s?

ROBERT FLEMING: Indeed. There was a minor one in the 40s. It really happened with the sting, because Marvin Hamlisch recorded the entertainer. The music was so evocative of that it's in the nation into a frenzy about Ragtime. The man one a Pulitzer posthumously, the Hall of Fame writers, every accolade he could've gotten, but posthumously. And years after. And he was somewhat prescient in saying twenty-five years after I'm dead people will remember me. He knew he was ahead of his time, in a sense, and that it would take a while for us to catch up with him.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's interesting, his works are now routinely used in classical music recital programs. Some people are rude enough to say they are there to wake people up. Would Scott Joplin have liked that?

ROBERT FLEMING: Loved it. I think to him, and many African Americans at the time would've agreed that the work had value, it was substantial. It was not light, fluffy, something easily dismissed. That was very much connected to his sense of identity as a human being. The idea of being moved from being property to being a human being had to be an incredibly mind-boggling. Yet this experience, and it was tied to his expression as a musician and artist. He choreographed steps into his music am a he had so many innovative ways that he reminded me of Charlie Chaplin, in the way that he controlled every element of what he did. With Treemonisha, this is really what he was attempting to do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You do play live music?

ROBERT FLEMING: I do indeed.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is quite a stretch along with everything else.

ROBERT FLEMING: It is. When I first started working on the project 2.5 years ago, I thought where do you start? Obviously it is with his body of music. I started to go through his repertoire, everything that was available, learning to play it and what it was telling me about who he was. I began to research out of the definitive biography by Edward Berlin, his life story, all of those pieces together, and I was in conversation with him good all of those things to build a foundation. Between the music, the text, and looking at the imagery of what was left began to inform the writing and how I imagined the story to be told.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How long did this take you?

ROBERT FLEMING: About 2.5 years. It has gone through many evolutions. It has always had a piece of total theater, the idea that one needed to know his story from multiple perspectives, and execution seemed essential to telling the tale.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because Scott Joplin did face all of these obstacles and was not successful in achieving his dearest ambition, and because of his early death, do you see him as a tragic figure?

ROBERT FLEMING: I think there is clearly a tragic element. It is one of those things that is inescapable about the story. But I am always drawn to the piece and the deepest tragedies about the affirmation of the human spirit to keep overcoming adversity. As a species, the idea of surviving and moving forward no matter what gets in our way, that really captures what the American spirit is about. Regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, economic class, there is a sense that I will get there, I will do what I would do, if I can't, I am going to die trying. He literally did that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mo'olelo presents Scott Joplin's New Rag, previewing this Thursday, opening night is Friday, September 26, at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center. Robert, thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it.