"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom"
A play by August Wilson
Director Liesl Tommy; Scenic and Costume Designer Clint Ramos; Lighting Designer Marcus Doshi; Original Music, Sound Design, and Music Direction Broken Chord; Production Stage Manager Leslie Sears; Stage Manager Kevin Robert Fitzpatrick
Boston University Huntington Theater
264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA
Running time 2 hr, 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Play runs through Sunday April 8 at 2 PM.
The scourge of racism might be America’s original sin. Playwright August Wilson (1945 - 2005) spent a lifetime writing plays about the African American experience. It’s as complex a story as you’ll find in American history.
After writing "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," Wilson realized he’d written plays set in three different decades. In the 1980s he decided to write a play for the rest of the decades of the twentieth century. The plays are known as The Pittsburgh Cycle. Having a white father but raised by his black mother, he grew up in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood in which nine of the ten plays in the cycle take place. When he writes about threats and hostility it’s not academic, he’s lived it.
"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" boils over with the themes that become the hallmarks of August Wilson’s dramas: hopes and aspirations of black Americans set within a social and racial framework that stack the odds against them.
By 1927, the Great Migration is well underway. Millions of black Americans have moved north to escape Jim Crow laws and racial violence. It’s clear after the first few minutes of "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" that Chicago doesn’t hold out the welcome mat for them.
Unless they could sing or dance or play music. The music industry is the lens Wilson uses to drill down to racial disparity of the 1920s. "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" takes place in a dingy recording studio in Chicago. It’s clear from the start that Ma's agent Irvin and record producer Sturdyvant are parasites. Ma Rainey and her musicians are their cash cows, useful for as long as they can milk them.
Slow Drag (Glenn Turner),Levee
(Jason Bowen),Toledo (Charles Weldon),Cutler (G. Valmont Thomas) Photo T. Charles Erickson
Irvin and Sturdyvant realize that black musicians in South Chicago are creating the most innovative music in town. The big band music in North Chicago is pure white. In segregated Chicago, they won't share a stage with Ma Rainey or her black musicians but have no trouble copying (polite word for steal) arrangements they hear when they flock to after-hours joints on the South side.
The three-tier set at the Huntington Theater is a perfect metaphor for the times. At the left of the stage, a steep stairway leads to the office in which recordings are controlled. Half the left side of the stage is set as the recording studio, a tier below that on the right side is the rehearsal room in which the musicians practice. Top to bottom, that pretty much explains how power is distributed in the 1920s.
Ma Rainey’s band has shown up at 1 PM to record a new song. Ma, the famous Blues singer and diva of the first order, is late. Most of the play’s action takes place in the rehearsal room. While waiting for Ma to show up, the four musicians in Rainey’s band tell stories, argue, and engage in one-up-man-ship.
Wilson sets up a brilliant dialectic between young and ambitious trumpeter Levee and piano player Toledo, a generation older. It sounds like a conversation Wilson is having with himself to illuminate the nascent sense of possibilities in which blacks can make their own way in a white society and the reasons why that’s not going to happen.
Wilson’s ear for dialogue is unrelentingly authentic. He wants to capture a moment in time. There is not one whiff of PC language here and plenty of candid talk about the cruelties the characters have experienced at the hands of white people. Toledo's philosophizing about the nature of race and the place of blacks in a white society is eccentrically incisive and at odds with Levee's confidence that his new jazz-oriented arrangements will get him fame and fortune.
Their experience of discrimination and the means the characters devise to survive it act as a bond to link them together no matter what their politics. The exchanges between Levee and Toledo will echo in your mind long after the play ends.
The casting of Levee (Jason Bowen), Toledo (Charles Weldon), and Ma Rainey (Yvette Freeman) is especially strong. Everyone else – Ma Rainey’s white agent Irvin (Will Lebow), record company owner Sturdyvant (Thomas Derrah), Ma’s musicians Cutler (G. Valmont Thomas), Slow Drag (Glenn Turner), Ma’s nephew Sylvester (Corey Allen), Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), and white Policeman (Timothy John Smith) pulls his or her weight with vigor.
The play barrels with the momentum of freight train into its unexpected final scene. The white people in the audience get a version of history not captured in school books as Wilson starts working out how race relations got to the 1980s from the 1920s.