August Wilson wrote a series of 10 plays about various periods in African American life in the U.S. One of the standouts is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Wilson’s works look at Black culture and identity, with an emphasis on race relations and injustices. His characters are complicated, and each seem to have a moment to shine. “Ma Rainey” debuted on Broadway in the early 1980s and was revived in 2003.
This new production in Los Angeles is directed by Tony-winner Phylicia Rashad. It features a stellar cast who are believable in a play with imperfect characters and no heroes. The actors intersperse funny lines with serious stories about their lives and a little music, but this is not really a musical. It is really a tale about the character’s dashed hopes, successes, exploitation of African-American performers, and trying to get by in life. They keep the audience’s interest throughout, up until the shocking climax that took the wind out of the play’s sails and seemed to kill the mood (literally).
One would assume that the show is about the real-life character Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who was the first popular singer to incorporate the blues into her act and recordings (She was one of the first black acts signed to a white record label). She was popular during the blues craze of the 1920s, and was widely known as the “Mother of the Blues.”
As a character, Rainey is barely seen in the first half. Tony-winner Lillias White, who plays Rainey here, does sing magnificently in the little bits shone and she is sassy and fun as the diva. “White folks don’t understand about the blues,” she explains to her band leader. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.” She adds that people “don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.” Unfortunately, Ma Rainey and her musings are rarely the focal point of the evening.
The ensemble piece is about a presumably fictional 1927 recording session. Her band members come to practice (banter, and bicker) ahead of her arrival.
There is hot-headed, young trumpeter Levee (an excellent powerful performance by Jason Dirden), who writes songs and dreams of having his own band, but is burdened by his past and flashiness. Trombonist Cutler (Damon Gupton) is the band’s steady leader and peacemaker, trying to juggle Levee’s enthusiasm for the newer blues sounds, the record company producer’s desire for commercial sounds, and the comfort of playing things the old way. The bass player who is called Slow Drag (Keith David) for his ever-present reefers and studied silences. Lastly, there is the older man, Toledo (Glynn Turman), who is the only literate band member and tries to patiently school the others, particularly Levee.
Levee wants the band to play his version of the song “Black Bottom,” which was a popular dance in the 1920s. It is jazzier than the “old jug-band” version. When Rainey arrives, she puts Levee in his place. She wants her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Lamar Richardson in a role that could have come off campy), to record the intro to the old version of the song.
White is great as the wise Rainey, who knows she needs to get all she can (her car fixed, a soft drink, etc.) from her manager and the producer before the session starts. As she explains to Cutler, “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.”
Dirden’s role has him alternating between being a dandy, a flirting playboy (hitting on Rainey’s lesbian playmate, Dussie Mae (Nija Okoro), and a reality check on racial relations of the era. It includes a monolog about his fury at God for, among other things, racial mistreatment his parents endured and his mother’s rape. He is believable in his anger, but the culmination is off-putting.
Those looking for an evening of blues will not find it in this play, and might leave feeling a bit blue. But they cannot help but appreciate the fine stage performances that carry “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” even if the race issues and bickering between bandmates leave one singing the blues.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Performance Sept. 11
Center Theatre Group: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Biography.com: Ma Rainey
Playbill: Lillias White Stars in CTG’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Opening Tonight
Photo of L-R: Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David and Jason Dirden in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” by Craig Schwartz, courtesy of Center Theatre Group
Photo of Lillias White as Ma Rainey by Craig Schwartz, courtesy of Center Theatre Group