Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

by August Wilson
Directed by Irene Lewis
Starring Ro Boddie, E. Faye Butler, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Toccarra Cash, David Fonteno, Merwin Goldsmith, Jeb Kreager, Maurice McRae, Laurence O’Dwyer, Ernest Perry Jr.
Philadelphia Theatre Company, 480 S Broad Street, Philadelphia
(in association with Baltimore Centerstage)
production web site:
May 21, 2010 through June 13, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 21, 2010 [1st preview of transfer production, opens May 26, 2010]

I saw the small cast Linda Hopkins presentation Me and Bessie in the late 1970s, presenting in song and story the life of Bessie Smith, sometimes aided by two dancers portraying multiple roles.  I expected a version of this in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which I knew was inspired by an historical personage, a successful blues singer who lived tough.  And golly was I wrong about the structure and effect of this piece.  Ma Rainey is a history and a blues story and a well crafted journey in real time in two acts that moves and transports.  It is a masterpiece of acting and theatre and story telling craft.  And then in this production there is the gift of E. Faye Butler.  Goodness.

This play is not hung on the artifice of a real event around which theatre  is  created — like another play Looped about Tallulah Bankhead reviewed a few weeks ago superficially told,  also in a recording studio, where the driving action was looping film dialogue (would she or wouldn’t she get it together to finish the phrase so the company could finish the picture?).  Ma Rainey, in a honed road show straight from CenterStage in Baltimore, takes the occasion of a recording event (it works dramatically whether or not the occasion behind the particular session was based on a real particular event) and tells a broader story of society challenged and community in pain and individuals struggling to make sense.

The production invites me to love it.  Wail of the blues in voice and instrumentals (sound design by David Budries) and realistic yet theatrical set by Riccardo Hernandez.  with names of familiar and unfamiliar blues tunes emblazoned on the three theatre walls of the proscenium stage.  Sea Blues.  Mountain Jack Blues,  Southern Blues,  Dream Blues.  Gone Daddy Blues.  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Blues.  and these are just the beginning of the streaming text punctuating the visual planes of the recording studio and rehearsal hall settings of this tightly crafted August Wilson play.

Dramaturgy and materials by Faedra Chatard Carpenter are stunning, imported from the joint CenterStage production — ranging from background on Rainey herself to referenced historical events such as the African American northern migration in the early 20th century to members of the Harlem Renaissance to Bessie Smith to considerations of the meaning of a character’s stammer.  All of these provide essential context to Ma’s years: 1886-1939, and the setting of this play in 1927 when she was all of 41.

In this piece of theatre four black musicians, three white men (manager, owner of the recording studio, and a policeman), and three in Rainey’s entourage including herself (E. Faye Butler) populate the stage set.  And we are invited into a world of blues and race relations and lifetimes of pain and humor and the rhythms of storytelling.  The story of a people and a performer and individual echoes of pain, all in one evocative and lasting theatrical package.

Violence punctuates the play, in stories related (a knife killing in a brothel, a gang rape by multiple marauding white men witnessed by then eight year old musician Levee, Maurice McRae) and stories enacted.  Levee shows his fellow musicians the physical wound he received at the time of that early witnessed violence against his mother.  The interior wounds he received play out throughout the play in his pursuit of Ma Rainey’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Toccarra Cash), his provocation of each of his fellow musicians (especially the philosophizing Toledo, Thomas Jefferson Byrd), and a final explosion of anger incited by an inadvertent encounter with his beloved expensive shoes.

The ensemble here is taut and special and a privilege to observe.  The set by Riccardo Hernandez efficiently and delightfully evokes a recording studio and a second rehearsal space, with simple levels and pipes to delineate while leaving the space airy and free. This is a story of fomenting rage among the black and white, and business politics, and the sheer joy and pain of the blues.  At one point in the play Ma Rainey says of the blues: “White folks don’t understand.  Blues are a way of understanding life.” At the end of this production of this play, we all have taken a few steps on the way to understanding.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 24, 2010)

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