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A CurtainUp Review
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
By Elyse Sommer
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom made its Broadway debut in 1984. Despite the excitement stirred by the playwright's uncompromising vision and rich characterizations, it's taken almost twenty years for the play which initiated August Wilson's decade-by-decade examination of the 20th Century African-American experience to return to a Broadway stage. The revival may be overdue, but with the next to the last play in the cycle, Gem of the Ocean, scheduled to open at Chicago's Goodman Theater in April, it couldn't be timelier.
Don't let the lukewarm early reviews which preceded the second night press delays caused by the show's Ma Rainey (Whoopi Goldberg) coming down with the flu, deter you from seeing it -- especially if you're too young to have seen the original. Ma or "Madame Rainey", as she liked to be called, and her entourage still pack a dramatic and emotional wallop. While this production may not quite match the original, Wilson's picture of the African-American musician's life in the 1920s remains as funny as it is scathing.
Charles S. Dutton is a bit too old and wide of girth for the role of the trumpet player he so memorably created in 1984, but like some opera singers in the same situation, he retains the power to pull you all the way in during his most unforgettable scenes. Whoopi Goldberg who portrays the legendary and super successful blues singer Ma Rainey isn't there for either her great singing voice or acting but as a name with box office pull.
The play unfolds in a Chicago recording studio whose white owners (Louis Zordich and Jack Davidson) cater to the imperious Ma Rainey's every whim because she's their cash cow, but they call her musicians "boy". The story pivots around the tension between Ma Rainey and Levee (Dutton), the trumpeter who wants to jumpstart his ambition to be a songwriter with his own band by using his more more jazzy version of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at the recording session which has brought everyone to the studio. His having an eye on Ma's opportunistic young Lesbian lover Dussie Mae (Heather Alicia Simms) adds to the potential for trouble.
Though set in the twenties, what happens has strong echoes in the modern music business which embraced rap and hip-hop musiciaas only after they realized their money making potential. (My editor for a 1991 children's almanac of music tried to persuade me to ignore this genre, though most of the people profiled are still around). But as is usual with Wilson's work, Ma Rainey is less about plot than personalities. The dramatic wellspring is the interaction and the way the characters respond to their place in the world in which they live and work.
The two studio owners are the least interesting characters but then this is 1927 and without them, there would be no recording session; ergo, no play. Ma Rainey is important in that she has taken the giant step towards the American Dream that is supposed to be within reach of everyone, but still eludes people of color. She's has furs and money, a pretty young Lesbian lover and she can make outrageous demands ranging from an immediate supply of Coca Colas to having her stuttering young nephew Sylvester (Anthony Mackie) narrate an introduction to the music being recorded. The struggle to get where she is has made her tough and realistic. She knows full well that her agent's (Davidson) toadying acquiescence is based on greed rather than acceptance She recognizes the danger in allowing her voice to be recorded ("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. Ain't got no use for me" )
The highlights of Ma Rainey's limited time on stage are provided less by Ms. Goldberg than by young Anthony Mackie's Sylvester and Heather Alice Simms' Dussie May. Sylvester's several attempts to do the narration that his aunt assures him will cure his stutter are pricelessly funny. The main job of Ms. Simms is to look adorable; but while she has little to say, when she steals a moment at one of the microphones, she conveys all her eagerness to be more than Ma's kept girl. .
But the most electric scenes of the typically overlong Wilson evening take place in the rehearsal room at the front of the stage, where the men in Ma Rainey's band talk and argue while preparing for the recording session. Their personalities and attitudes evolve in wonderfully comic and human bits and pieces, and occasionally in more serious monologues. Besides the still fiery Dutton, the band has three other players all vividly and distinctively portrayed: Cutler (Carl Gordon) , the trombonist and leader who unlike the more musically adventurous Levee believes that "You plays the piece." never varying his start-up routine of "one, two, you know just what to do". . . . the aptly named , laid-back bass player Slow Drag (Stephen McKinley Henderson). . .the self-educated metaphor mixing pianist Toledo (Thomas Jefferson Byrd).
The play once again boasts a creative team which, as Les Gutman put it in his review of King Hedley II " is well on its way to being viewed as Wilson's principal interpreters," The team leader is Marion McClinton whose understanding of Wilson is evident in his fnely detailed direction. Set designer David Gallo has once created another set that not only creates a workable playing area (the glassed off, high above the stage white men's office symbolizes the great divide between the bosses and the workers, the whites and the blacks) but the neighborhood outside. It's jaw-dropping and obviously expensive, but worth the investment since it enhances the play enormously. Toni-Leslie James costumes inclued eye-popping furs and flounces for the women and natty suits for the men Completing the circle of Wilsonian interpreters par excellence are lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.
It will be interesting to see if the concluding play in the cycle will see some cause for optimism in the fact that heirs to Ma Raineys, like Whoopi Goldberg, have a firmer and fuller hold on their careers. They can be producers as well as performers -- and they have no problem hailing their own cabs. But before we learn how he views the 1990s, there's the forthcoming Gem of the Ocean to take us back to 1904, where his 20th century odyssey began.
King Hedley II (Los Angeles)
King Hedley II (Broadway)
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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