Bondo Wyszpolski

August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Taper

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page
L-r, Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David, and Lillias White in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Photo by Craig Schwartz

L-r, Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David, and Lillias White in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Photo by Craig Schwartz

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: a paean to the blues (a review)

by Bondo Wyszpolski

August Wilson is one of our most acclaimed playwrights, not just for the African American community but for everyone of any color. Even after his last play (“Radio Golf”) and his death in 2005, his work continues to be widely performed. (He was also the second of the two great Wilsons to be on the cover of Easy Reader… the other of course being Brian)

Local Offers

August Wilson had an exceptional relationship with the Center Theatre Group, actively working with them on their productions of his plays, which included “Seven Guitars” and “Gem of the Ocean.” He’s best known as the author of “The American Century Cycle,” ten works, each set in a different decade of the 20th century. Now, one of the early ones returns, and it’s the first time it’s been presented at the Mark Taper Forum.

Directed by Phylicia Rashad, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” takes place in Chicago, 1927, inside of a recording studio and a band rehearsal room downstairs. Wilson wrote it in the early 1980s, and it pretty much set the tone for all of his plays that followed.

L-r, Damon Gupton, Ed Swidey, Matthew Henerson and Lillias White in August Wilson'’s "“Ma Rainey'’s Black Bottom." Photo by Craig Schwartz

L-r, Damon Gupton, Ed Swidey, Matthew Henerson and Lillias White in August Wilson’’s ““Ma Rainey’’s Black Bottom.” Photo by Craig Schwartz

Sturdyvant (Matthew Henerson), the studio owner, is impatiently waiting for blues singer Ma Rainey (Lillias White) and her entourage to arrive. Trying to keep him calm is Ma Rainey’s manager Irvin (Ed Swidey). The four-piece backup band arrives first: Cutler (Damon Gupton) the trombonist, Toledo (Glynn Turman) the pianist, Slow Drag (Keith David) the bassist, and Levee (Jason Dirden) on trumpet.

The play mostly takes place in the rehearsal room as the band waits for Ma Rainey to show up. Much of the work consists of bantering between the four musicians, so there’s camaraderie but also dissension and some pertinent personal revelations. They talk about music, naturally, as well as racism and religion. Other topics range from Africa to women to Levee’s new shoes.

These are plain-speaking black men, wary of white folk and their intentions.

The play may seem to spin its wheels a little, but mostly that’s because the heart of the work is in the sound and soul of the language and the storytelling, of which Wilson was a master. Having an exceptional cast simply highlights the beauty and grace of Wilson’s dialogue.

Lillias White as blues singer Ma Rainey. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Lillias White as blues singer Ma Rainey. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Ma Rainey finally arrives with her nephew Sylvester (Lamar Richardson) and her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Nija Okoro), somewhat flustered after being detained by a policeman (Greg Bryan). The blues singer, as we quickly see, is rather headstrong, but if she comes across as bossy it’s because she has her idealism and won’t compromise her music. This eventually leads to a conflict with Levee, her trumpet player, because he wants to jazz up one of her songs, to make it more commercially palpable. But for Ma it’s about purity.

Levee is the wild card in this play, a vain man with suppressed rage, and an anger that in many ways is thoroughly justified. It just comes out at the wrong place and time, and directed at the wrong person.

Although she’s been called “the mother of the blues,” Ma Rainey’s fame has been eclipsed by Bessie Smith and others. Lillias White indeed sings a couple of her tunes, including the signature title song, which only enhances her stage presence. One may strain to catch every word, but the production is first rate and the scenic design by John Iacovelli is a work of art.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is onstage at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Exceptions: no public performances Oct. 4-7. Closes Sunday, Oct. 16. Tickets, $25 to $85. Call (213) 628-2772 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org. ER

Comments:

comments so far. Comments posted to EasyReaderNews.com may be reprinted in the Easy Reader print edition, which is published each Thursday.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login