On Tour, Alton F. White Finds the 'Real Man' in Ragtime's 'Coalhouse'

On Tour, Alton F. White Finds the 'Real Man' in Ragtime's 'Coalhouse' ON THE ROAD -- September 1998
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ON THE ROAD -- September 1998

When he was 16 and living in Cincinnati, Alton Fitzgerald White saw the film Ragtime and was so impressed by the late Howard Rollins' performance as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., that it changed his life. "I thought if I could ever move people the way this man moved me, then I would fulfill my life's challenge," he says. "You could identify with his passion and his charisma, which I think means not only talent and magnetism, but also the ability to be powerful and approachable at the same time."

The 32-year-old White is now living a dream playing Coalhouse -- the inventively hip pianist whose idealism is brutally murdered along with his beloved Sarah -- in the national touring company of Ragtime, which opened last April in Washington, D.C., and which is now in Denver. He first assayed the role last year for five months when he took over for Brian Stokes Mitchell in the world premiere Toronto engagement, jumping -- as he put it -- "on an already running machine," having to learn the material so fast and drawing such support from the cast that the energizing experience "stuck a pin in everyone's butt."

White, who made his Broadway debut in the role of John in Miss Saigon, which he followed with feature roles in The Who's Tommy and Smokey Joe's Cafe, says that he was eager to play Coalhouse as "a real man" rather than a martyred saint. "He gets evil, he gets down and dirty, there's no way to dress it up," says the actor, conceding that the danger exists of turning him into caricature. "Revenge is wrong, killing is wrong, but everybody has a breaking point, and he clicks. The only way you can get the audience to feel anything is if you tap into those real and complex emotions as Coalhouse goes on this ride, from this naive and hopeful man to a killer. This is a show about feeling, about passion, and if you don't commit to it, then the audience can't either."

As a black man growing up in public housing, White says that he doesn't have to dig very deep to feel Coalhouse's frustration. He had a hard time getting to the theatre in Washington, D.C. from his rather fancy digs in Dupont Circle because cabs simply wouldn't stop for him because of the color of his skin. When President Clinton and his family attended a performance, White saw the irony in his situation. "Here I am going to perform for the President of the United States, and I can't get a cab to get to the theatre. Things haven't changed that much in some ways since the days of Coalhouse."

What has changed, of course, is the fact that black people now have a voice and a forum in which to air the grievances of history and help heal the divisions between the races. When you have the talent of a Howard Rollins -- or an Alton White -- you have the ability to inspire not only inner-city teens but also the groups of people who gather at the stage door on any given night to meet the cast of Ragtime. "It's such a joy to see little kids, people in their 90s, people who remember the characters in the show, each night," he says. "It's a blessing."