THE GHOST of Louis Chauvin, the "Ragtime Natural Genius," dances on the edge of Scott Joplin's murky recollections of his own life in playwright Eric Overmyer's newest work.
"The Heliotrope Bouquet By Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin," playing in the new Head Theatre at Center Stage through April 7, is a poetic memory play. It is a dreamlike state in which the two gifted black artists are seen collaborating on their one and only major ragtime piece, a slow drag two-step called "The Heliotrope Bouquet," published in 1907.
Both young men received their musical education in the lurid confines of the sporting houses of the late 19th century.
In this rhythm-and-sound piece Chauvin was supposed to have exceeded the great Joplin as a virtuoso of the ragtime piano. An opium addict who lived for the excitement of the moment, Chauvin died in 1908 at age 26.
"Snuffed out before he realized his potential," says Victor Mack, the young actor who is portraying Chauvin in the Center Stage production. "He was a genius in that he could neither read nor write music. It was all in his head. In 1904 he won the piano-playing contest at the St. Louis World's Fair.
"It is not known how he really died," says Mack. "It might have been syphilis or multiple sclerosis. Little information is left about him except for a few photographs and birth and death dates."
Unlike the very confident, energetic Chauvin, Mack appears to be a quiet, introspective man with clearly defined plans for his future.
"When I first started to work on the role," he says during a coffee break in the theater's mezzanine, "I felt a special connection to him and his pursuit of his dream. He is not planned as I am, where A plus B equals C. He enjoyed the instant, the now.
"If you are a genius people don't accept you as a man. I believe Chauvin turned to drugs to help him cope with that. It was not what he wanted to do at all."
As part of his preparation for the character, Mack had to learn to simulate the finger movements of a piano player, keeping time to the taped music.
"Our music director, Dwight Andrews, tutored me," laughs Mack. "I made mistakes at first," he admits. "I am much better now. At times I was so paranoid I would keep my hands in front of me and hunch over the keys so no one could see me. It would have blown the whole illusion."
As a rather rebellious kid growing up in Akron, Ohio, Mack thought his prospects lay in electronics, but he was entered into a performing arts program in high school and fell in love with the theater.
"I knew then what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," says Mack, who hopes one day to direct and produce.
The artist attended Kent State for three years and received his B.F.A. from the North Carolina School of the Arts.
A year after graduation, Mack took the big step and moved to New York where he lived for a short time with four other actors in a one-and-a-half room apartment in Harlem.
"Luckily, three weeks later I got my first significant role," he says, "in 'The Mojo and the Sayso' with the Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, N.J., one of the leading black theaters in the country."
Since then, Mack, now 28, has been working steadily in the professional theater, no mean achievement in a field where the supply of actors far surpasses the demand.
"Especially for black artists," he says. "I have been so busy doing black productions, all originals, that I have not yet had a chance to cross over to roles that go either way, white or black. That is why writers like Eric are so important.
"This white playwright crossed the cultural boundaries to write about black people very well . . . about their subconscious . . . their dreams. A black cast is bringing it all to life. That is what theater is all about. Eric captured the spirit beautifully."
Of American theater today, he says, "The climate in this country fosters a desire for the light stuff. People don't want to think. That's not illegal yet," he adds grimly.
Mack has appeared with New York City's Public Theatre, the East Coast Arts Theater in New Rochelle and at the Sandeffur Experimental Theatre in Akron, Ohio. Television credits include the movie "Prime Target" starring Angie Dickinson (Mack played a thug) and "The Colored Museum" on PBS' "Great Performances."
He is slated to do a cameo role in the soon-to-be released film, "Hanging with the Homeboys."
After he completes the run of "Heliotrope Bouquet," Mack will return home to New York to start rehearsals for a new original multi-arts piece that will focus on music, dance and drama. A joint project of the Lincoln Center, Guthrie Theater and Playwrights Horizons, the production will go on limited tour and conclude with performances at Lincoln Center.