Curtain Call: Meet Ragtime’s Coalhouse Walker Jr.

David Allens and Christian Okiring as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime

We are less than one week away from opening night of the Senior School production of Ragtime. Vocal lessons and rehearsals began months ago and now as students, teachers, parents and volunteers prepare for curtains to rise next Thursday (Feb. 23), we are pleased to introduce the two actors sharing the lead role: Coalhouse Walker Jr.

Grade 12 students David Allens and Christian Okiring both step into the mighty role with two different performance backgrounds, but both say they are excited to help tell the important story of Ragtime.

What is your background in the performing arts?

David: I’ve been singing since I was five and taking voice lessons. And I’ve also done music theory, and there’s where I’ve had most of my experience. At my old school we would do a musical every two years, so I have performed in Oliver, Guys and Dolls and Grease but most of my performing has been music.

Christian: This is my fourth year doing the musical at SMUS. Before coming here, I think the only performing I had ever done was playing the archangel Gabriel in the nativity play. When I was in Grade 9 I was part of the improv group and all the Senior boys were talking about Spamalot and I just thought, ‘I have to do it if they’re doing it!’ And I found a place where I could grow and discover who I was within a really comfortable space with a group of people who were all working together for something really big. I had never been part of performing but when I got into this community it felt like home.

What about Coalhouse Walker Jr. appeals to you?

David: I think the role spoke to me because Coalhouse is a jazz pianist and his main thing in life is music. A lot of the things that happen in the play really move around that central focus of his. Since I have done music since I was five, it really is an important part of my life too, so I felt that I could bring my own experience to this character.

Christian: There’s a song that Coalhouse sings called Make Them Hear You, and I feel like it’s an ode to my high school experience; from being a quiet Grade 9, trying to find myself and find my way to where I am now in Grade 12. I sing it about some of the struggles I’ve had personally and it helps the emotion come through.

What has the experience been like performing in a SMUS musical?

Christian: It’s so much fun. The musical is a space where it doesn’t matter what grade you’re in, everybody who’s a part of it is friends and it’s really nice to see the talent that everybody else has. Mr. Collett uses an iceberg metaphor: everybody is there for the shows, which is the part of the iceberg above the surface. Under the water is the rest of the iceberg that nobody sees. All the rehearsals, staging, directing, music, just putting it all together is amazing. That sense of teamwork and collaboration that we’ve built is such a great feeling.

David: I like that the musical is such an integral part of the school community. A lot of people who are in the musical have been in two or three musicals before. I feel like I’m in my element and that I’m also getting to show people a side of me they may have never seen before. I like having an outlet to express myself differently than I usually would.

What is Ragtime about?

David: It’s about three different groups of people who are seemingly disconnected, but they are all moving through the 1920s landscape of racial differences and poverty and the social classes. It’s really interesting how the musical really connects these central themes.

Christian: Ragtime is the music that was going through these different groups at the time. It was new music – kind of like modern day rap in that it was led by the black people. And it’s about the differences between all of us and what unites us. When all the groups come together it’s really powerful, and so relevant to what’s going on in the world today. It’s not a musical that’s incredibly well known but it is truly spectacular.

Why should people come see Ragtime?

David: I think the musical is a lighter way to approach the very real fact that a lot of people have these mentalities that they don’t need each other or that they’re better than other people. But seeing how characters can care about each other when they step out of the social norms, I think is a deep message for what’s happening around the world.

Christian: The message is just as relevant today as it was back in the 1920s. The lyrics are amazing, the songs are amazing, but it’s the message that really matters. You don’t have to be someone who’s black or classified by your skin colour or where you’re from. The message relates to people from different walks of life who’ve gone through different struggles.

Ragtime runs nightly at 7:30 p.m. from February 23-25, with a 2 p.m. matinee on February 25. Tickets and more information are available on the McPherson Playhouse website.

Do you want to read about some of our past musicals? Last year the Senior School put on The Phantom of the Opera. In 2015, the Senior School put on Legally Blonde, while the Middle School performed The Wizard of Oz. In 2014, Spamalot was the Senior School production, and in 2013 we were treated to The Secret Garden at the Senior School, and Annie at the Middle School.


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