'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom': Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'
Lyrical writing and indelible performances, loaded with humanity.
10/16/2016

Phylicia Rashad continues her superlative exploration of August Wilson's work, directing an outstanding cast in the playwright's 1920s-set drama woven around themes of identity and ambition.

In 1965, when August Wilson acquired his first typewriter, he also picked up a copy of Bessie Smith’s rendition of “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine.” It could be a coincidence or it could mean he was destined to write Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the 1984 play that became the Tony- and two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright’s introduction to Broadway. Directed by Phylicia Rashad, the new production excavates the play’s humor with an outstanding ensemble as naturalistic as it is lyrical, reflecting the playwright’s uncanny ability to mine poetry from the everyday.

When Ma Rainey, aka Gertrude Pridgett, signed with Paramount Records in the early 1920s, she was one of the first black blues singers to join a major label. Within a few years, the top-selling artist who had performed with Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson was pulling in $200 per record at a time when Al Jolson, performing in black face, earned $10,000 for the same work. The fact is not mentioned in the play, but it's one that haunts Rainey and her band even as they assemble for a recording session in a Chicago studio.

To the chagrin of record producer Sturdyvant (Matthew Henerson) and his assistant Irvin (Ed Swidey), Rainey is late. But the rest of the band has arrived, including ambitious trumpet player Levee (Jason Dirden), who aims to bring a new, jazzier style to their music. On trombone is Cutler (Damon Gupton), who prefers to play the songs the way they always have, and the wise old codger on piano is Toledo (Glynn Turman), who’s long on patience and longer on opinions regarding the condition of “the colored man.” On bass is Slow Drag (Keith David), who’s cool just smoking reefer and keeping above the fray.

The youngest member of the quartet, Levee is cocky but charming, buoyed by the certainty his new songs for Sturdyvant, as well as the upbeat jazzy arrangement he’s worked out for the titular number, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” will catapult him to stardom. The thing is though, Rainey likes it the old way, even if Sturdyvant prefers the new.

Despite the play’s title, the four guys in the band are front and center on John Iacovelli’s tiered set, placing the rehearsal room where the band gathers on the ground, the studio at stage level and recording booth where Sturdyvant and Irvin dwell at the top of the pyramid. It’s a masterful touch underscoring the play’s themes of power, ambition and self-delusion.

When Rainey (Lillias White) finally arrives, she is stomping angry about a fender-bender that damaged her car, as well as charges of assault and battery following an altercation with an unaccommodating cabbie. With her are her nephew Sylvester (Lamar Richardson) and her lover Dussie Mae (Nija Okoro), who looks on as Rainey demands that Irvin cover the costs of repairs, though she is powerless in the face of the assault charges, which are only dismissed when Irvin slides the cop some cash.

As the recording session gets started, Levee is dismayed to learn that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will be rendered in the usual blues style. Rainey feels this is rooted to her culture, even if Levee calls it “old jug-band music.” Rather than a trumpet intro, Sylvester will provide a voice intro, despite his stutter. The song that follows is a showstopper, highlighting White’s growly vocal style and physical combustion as she wails and stomps about in costume designer Emilio Sosa’s green satin dress. Although Rainey demonstrates formidable talent, despite her blustery demands and tough talk she is powerless and she knows it. “As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on,” she explains to Cutler.

Through her years in the industry she has come to realize she can push things only so far. It’s a lesson Levee might learn with disastrous results if he's not careful. In a play sometimes marred by slow plotting, Wilson squeezes dramatic bounce from the extremes to which Levee is pushed, though this sometimes feel forced. In the original production, the role launched the career of Charles S. Dutton, earning him a Tony nomination. And while Dirden — who appeared in the 2010 Broadway revival of Wilson’s Fences, as well as a much-lauded 2012 production of the playwright's The Piano Lesson off-Broadway — begins his arc with a brash likability, his expressed desire to sell his soul to the devil and his assertion that “life ain’t shit, death’s got some style” seem to underscore his individuality rather than mental instability.

Ma Rainey is Rashad’s second success directing Wilson at the Mark Taper Forum, after 2013’s spectacular Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which also starred David. A veteran of stage and screen with a powerful but subdued presence, he brings a faster tempo than expected to a character with a name like Slow Drag. Playing Toledo, Turman, who also was in Joe Turner, has a number of monologues on race and identity performed with earthy wit and humble resonance. Rashad's ensemble work is fluid and naturalistic, demonstrating a keen understanding of Wilson’s themes, as well as a deft hand with her actors.

When Ralph Ellison said the blues were “an autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically,” Wilson seemed to take him at his word. With its focus on identity issues and persistence in the face of injustice, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is emblematic of the playwright's 20th Century Cycle of 10 plays chronicling the African-American experience, and by extension, the American journey, bringing humanity, humor, poetry and pathos to each decade.

Interest in Wilson will no doubt surge later this year when the big-screen version of Fences opens, directed by and starring Denzel Washington alongside Viola Davis (both Tony winners for the same roles on Broadway). Already being flagged as an Oscar contender, the film should square nicely with the Academy’s efforts to put to rest the #OscarSoWhite controversy. But regardless of the current push for diversity or the movie’s success or failure, race issues will no doubt continue to plague the entertainment industry as they have since the time of Ma Rainey.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Cast: Greg Bryan, Keith David, Jason Dirden, Damon Gupton, Matthew Henerson, Nija Okoro, Lamar Richardson, Ed Swidey, Glynn Turman, Lillias White
Director: Phylicia Rashad
Playwright: August Wilson
Set designer: John Iacovelli
Costume designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting designer: Elizabeth Harper
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Music director: Steven Bargonetti
Presented by Center Theatre Group

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