Fort Worth — The songs aren’t really right for their record label, says the white man, leaning in toward the young black musician. But, he adds smoothly, “I’ll take them off your hands. I’m doing you a favor.” Five bucks a song, and no, sorry, you won’t be the one to record them after all. “I’m doing you a favor,” he says again, holding out two $5 bills. In the stillness, we hear hope and pride come crashing down, and know we haven’t come to the end of this story.
August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the kind of play that, after it’s over, leaves you needing a long, hard walk around town—something, anything to work off the electric charge of what you’ve just seen. The action never moves outside the rooms of a 1920s Chicago studio where blues singer Gertrude (Ma) Rainey is set to record a few songs, but it’s a wild ride all the same, and a work you won’t be able to shake off very easily. The ancient Greeks didn’t throw the word catharsis at just any old play, but they might have given it to this one—an intensely experienced, grabbed-by-the-throat piece of theater that leaves us amazed, heartsick, raised up…and more than a little changed.
Don’t misunderstand: there are some good laughs in Wilson’s classic, and in this admirable revival from Jubilee Theatre director Tre Garrett and a vibrant cast find them all. But the jokes and jabs and tall tales—just like the blues songs Ma Rainey sings—provide cover for a cry of pain we know can’t be held in check forever.
After Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, the first Broadway play from an African-American writer, there was a startling 25-year gap before the Great White Way saw another. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opened in New York late in 1984, led by Yale Repertory legend Lloyd Richards, the same director who brought Raisin to the stage. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play in 1985, made the career of the young Charles Dutton, and opened a path for more works by Wilson and other black playwrights. Ma Rainey is the only one of Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” set in another city, but it too tells of southern blacks looking for new lives up north in the great migrations of the early 20th century. One of them was August Wilson’s mother, who traveled from North Carolina to Pittsburgh during World War II.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?
Or does it explode?
Poet Langston Hughes’ questions sound their notes through both of these plays. Hansberry’s drama considers the dreams of one tightly knit Chicago black family in the late 1950s, who actually have some reason to hope the world is starting to change. Writing about the 1920s, August Wilson knows that for his characters, real change is a lifetime away—longer, probably, than any of their dreams can last.
Inside the limited world of black life in 1920s America, Ma Rainey (Valerie Houston, who performed the role to much acclaim in Memphis) is a star: one of the first African-American singers to land a record contract, she’s known as “the mother of the Blues.” Houston has a singing voice that fills the room, and she gives us all of Ma’s earthy, larger-than-life qualities. She’s loud and demanding, keeping her white manager Irvin (Eric Wilder) hopping, record-company exec Sturdyvant (Gary E. Payne) nervous as a cat, and pretty girlfriend Dussie Mae(Kenneisha Thompson) flouncing and preening to catch Ma’s eye. The only motherly affection “Ma” shows is to her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Jordan Cooper; understudy Anthony Chambers played the role at the performance reviewed).
But though Ma’s “race” records are popular, it’s still a white man’s world out there: a policeman (Tyler Cochran) is at the studio door wanting Ma to prove she owns the fancy car she’s driving. There’s method in her sound and fury: Ma knows she has to spend every day battling to make sure that “other” world treats her right, at least until the white guys get what they want—her voice. Making them wait is the only power she has. Once it’s done, she’s nothing to them. “When I’ve finished recording,” she says, “it’s just like I’d been some whore, and they roll over and put their pants on.”
The battles between Ma and the music industry are the public face of Wilson’s story—but though Rainey has top billing, she isn’t really at center stage in Wilson’s play. That spot belongs to the four musicians waiting for her in the warm-up room (whose built-in cubbies, from set designer Michael Pettigrew, give the space a locker-room, game-on feel). Judging by the well-worn jokes and old stories they share, three of the men have known each other for quite a while: dignified trombone player Cutler (Selmore Haines III), who remembers a black preacher forced to dance at gunpoint when he’s stranded in an all-white town; piano player Toledo (Dennis Raveneau), a gentle, offbeat philosopher who says it’s time to stop playing by white rules and embrace a true “African” heritage; and Slow Drag (Jerrold Trice), a friendly, easy-living bass player who’s just as happy to dance with a girl in Fat Back, Arkansas as in New Orleans. All three actors are veteran performers, and it shows; each gives their character vivid life, and after a few scenes, we find ourselves admiring their grit and humor—and worrying about them, too.
The fourth musician is a young newcomer who couldn’t care less about fitting in: a pin-striped, ambitious trumpet player named Levee (Adam A. Anderson) who mocks Ma’s traditional arrangements as “jug band music.” Levee is writing his own songs, and (he thinks) his own ticket to a recording contract. He says the record company honcho has agreed to buy his music, and to substitute Levee’s “swinging” new version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Rainey’s signature tune) at today’s session.
Levee is caught up in his own schemes and dreams, and we’re put off by his callous, mocking attitude toward the other musicians. His obsessions seem funny at first, especially his concern for a new pair of two-toned shoes, but there’s something darker and coiled here: Levee is ready to spring at any sign of disrespect. With all the verbal banter, it’s easy to miss the truth—that while there’s plenty of noise and drama out there in the studio with Ma, the real danger is shaping up in this quiet back room.
Anderson gives a blazing performance, drawing us so powerfully into his story by the end of the first act we aren’t sure what he’ll have left for the second. No worries, apparently. Fiercely truthful performances from this four-man “band” of actors carry Wilson’s passionate story all the way. In the end, actors and audience are left looking at the scene onstage—all of us together, shocked and wondering and silent.
Barbara O’Donoghue’s costumes are true to the period, with Dussie Mae’s banana-cream yellow satin and Levee’s knife-sharp suit standing out from the rest. And director Garrett has worked hard with sound designer David Lanza to produce an in-the-moment sound for the musicians (recorded tracks for each instrument emanate from separate, strategically placed speakers) that lets us hold on to the illusion of live performance. Wilson’s raw, beautiful language slings the “N” word around freely, true to the usage of the time. It only adds to our sense of having had doors opened to us, letting us walk into the private world of these characters, with a great playwright as our guide.