By even the most generous definition of ethnic diversity, Oliver Mayer is an odd breed: a playwright who’s part Jewish, part Latino, and who writes lyrically about blacks in America. Mayer keeps targeting the paradox of always being both abbreviated and exaggerated in a country that has always felt ambiguously, at best, about blacks of any scale, and then he filters this duality through historical eras, and moments. Last year‘s Joe Louis Blues was set in the 1940s as wartime America radically redefined villains and heroes; Ragged Time, running now at the Black Dahlia Theater, takes place in Charleston at the turn of the 20th century, 30 years after the end of slavery yet at the height of a new racial villainy that’s often missing in descriptions of the Gay ‘90s.

“You have huge questions of freedom at that time,” says Mayer. “Reconstruction was over. Times were hard economically. It was a point at which the country was figuring out what it was, and also what it could be.”

That Ragged Time also depicts America at a critical point in its evolution as a world power — the Spanish-American War, the only pre-emptive war the nation has ever undertaken, serves as a backdrop — makes Ragged Time unexpectedly contemporary. And in another modern flourish, ragtime composer Scott Joplin’s music, with its polyrhythms, reminds us where hip-hop really got its start.

Mayer and director Matt Shakman tackle these big questions at the tiny Black Dahlia Theater, located on Pico Boulevard near Hauser in an area known better for auto-body shops than for theater. Shakman acquired the space — formerly a record store — with the idea of growing ambitious projects that would bear his stamp. That might smack of hubris had the 27-year-old Yale-grad director not wowed critics last year with his production of Austin Pendleton‘s Orson’s Shadow — a dramatic chamber quartet about Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Kenneth Tynan that was Shakman‘s first sizable L.A. production, playing at the Tiffany Theater after transferring from the Black Dahlia.

Mayer was impressed enough to approach Shakman about directing Ragged Time. “The great challenge for me was doing the largest play in the smallest space, and this is a great one,” explains Shakman, who happens to be, like Mayer, of Jewish and Latino descent. “I’m a big believer in the idea that all you need is an actor walking across the empty space and somebody watching, and you have theater.”

At a recent rehearsal, it‘s clear that Ragged Time fits comfortably in the Dahlia: The play is set in hardscrabble economic times, and the set features a dirt pit in its middle, and little else on the stage. Actors create tableaux and tension with minimal decorative support. L. Kenneth Richardson, playing a blind bluesman, is recovering from the flu and has to gesture while his lines are read from the house. This circumstance only slightly diminishes Richardson’s stage power; he‘s a theater veteran (he directed the L.A. run of George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum at the Taper) who normally comes off as larger than life. Also a trained and experienced actor, and a frequent collaborator with Mayer, Richardson returns to the boards in Ragged Time — his first stage outing since appearing in Joe Louis Blues in 1992.

“The rehearsal process was very crash-course, no time for deliberation, but I still had to do my work the way I do it,” says the 52-year-old Richardson. “I had to dig down to the soul of this character, to the complexities.”

He describes his character as a black man trying to map his own ascent in a society that has all but refused to let him.

“This is about slavery, for God‘s sake.”

That slavery felt much less like history and more like a continuum was but one of many artistic and personal challenges to Richardson.

“Rehearsing this, I got a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. I got sort of beat up. I thought, here are all the things that are true for a black man living in the 21st century and that aren’t resolved.”

While the play‘s largest unresolved questions revolve around race, there are also issues of gender identity, sexual relationships, romantic intent. Progress occurs; there are even epiphanies, but, Mayer points out, “On another level, nothing is solved. Society is the same hard rock.”

This is the dichotomy that most interests him, and — increasingly — most informs his material. Race in America happens to illustrate that dichotomy best.

“I’m always writing outside my comfort zone,” he says. “Maybe it‘s a way of working out my own fear about things.”

Ragged Time is being performed at the Black Dahlia Theater, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., through November 3. Call (323) 856-4200.

LA Weekly