By Kenneth Jones
19 Jul 1999
Alton Fitzgerald White, who plays the wronged Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Broadway's Ragtime, was himself wronged by New York City Police July 16 when he was mistakenly arrested at his building just hours before the Friday evening performance.
The New York Times reported that police have conceded White and three acquaintances were wrongfully arrested outside the lobby of White's Harlem apartment building on St. Nicholas Avenue, held for several hours and strip-searched. White missed the Friday performance, and subsequent shows over the weekend.
The police were responding to a report of Hispanic men with weapons at the building, but White, who is African-American, and his black acquaintances, were among those rounded up.
Although he was released Friday, White also missed the subsequent weekend Ragtime performances. Some cast members had no idea where White was until they read the weekend papers.
He told the Times Saturday that he pulled out of his Saturday appearance in the Tony Award-winning show because he had not eaten or rested properly. In the musical, White plays an African-American rag pianist who can find no justice after his property is destroyed by racist firemen. The vandalism leads to a revenge, murder and mayhem story in which Coalhouse Walker Jr. wreaks havoc on the justice system that showed him none.
White told The New York Times he was talking to lawyers about pursuing a civil rights lawsuit against the police department. He believes he and the other men were arrested due to their skin color.
"When I was sitting in that jail cell, I realized that my perception about good and justice would never be the same," he told The New York Times.
The police department apologized, but said the men fit the description of a tip about drug-dealing, and told The Times that two of the six men arrested -- not White's acquaintances -- were charged with criminal drug possession. Strip-searching is apparently routine in felony drug cases.
White's other Broadway appearances were in Smokey Joe's Cafe (also in London), Miss Saigon and The Who's Tommy. He has worked at the Goodman Theatre, the McCarter Theatre and elsewhere.