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Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016 3 years ago

Theater Review: 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

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Prejudice and pride in the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe's latest production.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Nostalgic about the past? The West Coast Black Theatre Troupe’s current production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will cure you of that sentiment. And give you second thoughts about the present as well.

The play takes you to a Chicago recording studio in 1927. Ma Rainey (aka “The Queen of the Blues”) is about to lay down some tracks with her band. The musicians are all black. The music business owners are all white. The power and the money are on their side. But Ma Rainey’s got talent, and that gives her clout. Her records sell, baby. As she likes to boast: She makes more money for the label than all the other artists combined. Her four musicians may be talented, but they lack her leverage. They’re hired hands—disposable, and they know it.

The first act starts off like “Waiting for Ma Rainey.” We don’t see the blues diva for a long time. Like Godot, she’s an off-stage presence—and notorious for being late. The musicians wait for her, what else can they do? Bottled up in the rehearsal room, they share tall tales, boast of sexual conquests, crack jokes and kid each other. The no-nonsense Cutler (Kenny Dozier) is the trombonist and band leader—he just wants to do the gig, get paid and get out. Slow Drag (Patric Robinson) is the laid-back bassist. Toledo (Henri Watkins) is part pianist, part philosopher—and he’s been in the biz a long time. He sees the big picture, draws his band mates’ attention to a heroic African past and a hellish African-American future. Levee (Robert Douglas) is the hotshot trumpet player. Young gifted and black, Levee’s been thinking about his own future, period. He writes his own songs and wants his own hit-making band—and Ma Rainey’s kind of clout. For now, Levee chafes under Ma’s absolute control—but he resents the white power structure even more. Levee’s resentment spills out, sours the mood, and settles on Toledo as a target. Levee and the wise old piano player just don’t get along.

Photo by Don Daly

Ma Rainey (Tarra Conner jones) finally shows up, with her girlfriend (Emerald Rose Sullivan) and nephew (Earley Dean) in tow. The recording session does not go smoothly. Ma holds the studio hostage, demands her stuttering nephew do an intro, slaps down Levee’s jazzy arrangement of “Black Bottom”, and threatens to walk if she doesn’t get a coke. This is more than a diva demanding blue M&Ms. The music business is a white man’s business—and she’s been exploited all her life. Ma Rainey knows that her only power is her voice, and that voice may be going out of style. But, as long as she’s got the power, Ma’s going to use it—and put rich white guys like her manager Irvin (Stephen Emery) and the label owner Sturdyvant (Terry Wells) in their place. She does, and humiliates Levee in the process. The gifted, ambitious trumpet player takes it. But the audience knows she’s playing with nitroglycerine.

In one heart-stopping scene, Levee explodes when the band kids him for kissing up to white people. He reveals a horrific childhood memory: his mother’s gang rape, his father’s revenge on four of the white rapists, and the lynching that it cost him. Yeah, he smiles for now. He’s determined to make it in the white man’s world. If smiling is what it takes, he’ll do it.

Levee puts up with Ma Rainey’s put down for one simple reason: He still has hope. Sturdyvant commissioned him to write some songs, dangling promises of his own band. When the session ends, the label owner appears. “The songs aren’t really right for their record label,” he says. “But I’ll take them off your hands. I’m doing you a favor.” Five bucks a song, that’s the deal. With that, Levee’s dream dies. It’s a safe bet, someone else will too.

Photo by Don Daly

August Wilson’s dialog is scalpel-sharp, his insights X-ray deep. Sure he has points to make, but he makes them without polemic. Everything feels like the real talk of a random encounter. Director Chuck Smith honors the playwright’s naturalistic tone, and makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a slice of lost time. The actors are equally real.

Jones is a force of nature as Ma Rainey. The look in her eyes tells you all the hard roads she’s traveled. She can sing, too—and brings down the house with her rendition of “Black Bottom.” Watkins is fine as Toledo, the philosopher king/piano man. Badly performed, his character could seem like (A) the playwright’s mouthpiece (B) a pompous, lecturing blowhard. Watkins walks the tightrope, and gives him gravitas, humanity and believability. Gordon’s Cutler is in it for the money and stopped worrying about “art” a long time ago. McKinley’s Henderson isn’t worried about anything. (Thanks to a sunshiny attitude and the occasional reefer.) But Douglas’ Levee is a coiled spring ready to snap—or a police report waiting to happen. Talent without respect is a curse. He’s amazingly talented, and damned. Douglas makes you feel the man’s hope and pain with a raw, visceral, honest performance. The supporting characters have scant stage time. But the actors playing them breathe life into their brief roles.

Wilson’s slice of history transpires in Michael Newton’s convincing set with—as far as I can tell—functioning period microphones. Cristy Owen’s costumes are more than great period work; they’re statements of character. One glance tells you exactly who you’re looking at

The same does not apply to Wilson’s play. He raises tough moral issues, then dares to twist them into knots of nuance without any fortune cookie answer. The businessmen aren’t white devils. Ma Rainey isn’t a black saint. Toledo isn’t the voice of truth. Levee isn’t the bad guy—or the good guy. Although he isn’t the title character, the play feels very much like his tragedy. Pride is at the heart of Levee’s pain. But this isn’t the standard sermon.

Pride is often called the first sin. But crushing someone else’s pride may be worse.

And the wages of that particular sin may have a much higher cost.

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