Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Michael Brosilow.
There is simply no better director alive for interpreting the works of August Wilson than Ron OJ Parson, who has opened his 26th such interpretation with Writers Theatre’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the 1920s edition of the playwright’s American Century Cycle. Parson brings to each production a deft touch with characterization and pacing, a strong eye for blocking, a wonderful sense of both comic and tragic styling, and most of all a keen ear for Wilson’s poetic dialogue. Watching a Parson-directed Wilson play is one of the best things that can happen to a theatergoer, and his fifth production of Ma Rainey is no exception.
The play takes place in a recording studio (which Parson and scenic designer Todd Rosenthal have placed in a converted Bronzeville church: a lovely touch) in which the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Felicia P. Fields, who played the role in the Goodman’s 1997 version of this play and excels in this one) is getting ready to record another group of songs for her producer, a white man who wants her to change her successful style to move along with the times. The racial power struggle here is a prominent part of the play: exploitation of black musicians (and co-opting their sound) has a grand tradition in the American recording industry. But Ma Rainey is a strong woman, for better or for worse, who will not change to please a producer who, as the play argues, doesn’t really care about her beyond the money he can make from her. (The real Ma Rainey’s career plummeted during the Depression in part because she wouldn’t change her style.)
All of this is merely the external story, though. The real focus of this play is on the hired band members who tour with Ma Rainey and are gathered here for the recording session. They are a generally tight little makeshift family made up of men who have foregone real family commitments for their love of music. Cutler (Alfred H. Wilson, whose perfect timing creates a lot of the show’s humor) is the leader of this band, forever true to Ma Rainey no matter what. Toledo (David Alan Anderson) is the group’s token intellectual, forever reading newspapers and going on about philosophy. Slow Drag (A.C.Smith) is the bassist, a large, laconic man who likes to avoid conflict. All of them are very funny in their line readings and interactions. And then there is Levee (Kelvin Roston, Jr.), the trumpet player who is the newest member of the band and whose ideas and pretensions to better things (he wants to form his own band and play his own music) threaten the harmony of this little crew.
Levee’s arc is really the center of this show, as the producer (Thomas J. Cox) and Ma Rainey’s agent (Peter Moore) wish to jazz up this version of her signature song, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with his new arrangement. The band’s jousting about whether to do this provides much of the comedy of Act One (though Cutler repeatedly makes it clear that, no matter what they decide, it’s Ma herself who will ultimately make the call). Levee is a man who is wound much more tightly than any of his bandmates, and this results from a horrifying event he witnessed in his childhood that renders him unable to trust white men and hard to get along with in general. Roston is excellent as this man with a hair-trigger who is a brilliant musician lost in his own dreams and won’t listen to others’ advice. During two monologues that show the intensity of his inner world, Roston owns the stage, his fiery anger and pain determined to boil over. Despite the larger-than-life Ma Rainey’s presence, this is really Levee’s story, and Roston brings it home powerfully.
But this is Parson’s show from beginning to end, and though it is his fifth mounting of the play it feels utterly fresh. Nothing here feels stale or jaded; Parson has mined the play for nuances he might have missed before and it pays off. He has gathered together not only a top-notch cast, but a quality group of designers. In addition to Rosenthal’s set, Jared Gooding’s lights are used for dramatic effect several times, Ray Nardelli’s sound design is outstanding, and Myrna Colley-Lee’s period costumes are wonderful. All of them contribute to a damn near perfect production whose two-and-a-half hour length zips by.
Coincidentally, this is the second night in a row I watched a play about a recording session in which white producers take advantage of black performers to make a profit. Haven Theatre’s The Total Bent has a similar theme running through it. One character even sarcastically comments that no one has ever heard of white people stealing black people’s music. Here Cox’s Sturdyvant is exploiting both Ma Rainey and Levee. It’s clear from the start that Ma, an old hand at all of this, understands the way things work even if she doesn’t like it. But Levee is young and volatile; he knows not to trust white men but nonetheless puts his hopes in one. It’s just a matter of time before, true to his name, he “breaks.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a play about that kind of exploitation, but it is never preachy. In fact, though Wilson viewed it (like all of his plays) as a tragedy, it is wonderfully funny for much of its length. The opening night audience laughed heartily and frequently as we got to know these enjoyable and (mostly) inviting characters. Like his Radio Golf last fall at Court Theatre, Parson’s Ma Rainey is simply masterful.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now playing at the Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct, Glencoe, until Mar 17. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.