Friday, February 15, 2019

Early Blues Infusion: Writers Theatre Strikes Chord With August Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
by August Wilson
directed by Ron OJ Parson
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru March 17

At this point, I've seen several of August Wilson's 10 plays chronicling the African-American experience across the decades of the 20th century.

But when I first saw Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Wilson's 1920s installment--written before he planned on doing a series of 10--I didn't really want to.

I certainly don't mean to imply that anyone forced, cajoled or convinced me in a way I regret.

It's just that on a trip to New York in March 2003, I had a desire--and even tickets--to see the hot new musicals at the time: Thoroughly Modern Millie and Urinetown.

But there happened to be a musicians' strike that shuttered every Broadway musical, including those two.

So at the TKTS booth in Times Square, I got myself tickets to see a revival of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom--it had originally opened on Broadway in 1984--starring Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
It also featured Carl Gordon, who I recalled playing Dutton's dad on the sitcom Roc, and Anthony Mackie, who's become something of a film & TV star.

As Ma Rainey was a singer known as the "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey's Black Bottom features a good bit of music played live onstage--which was permissible during the strike--but it isn't officially a musical.

So though it wasn't my first choice in March 2003 on Broadway, I was happy to see it--and I enjoyed it.

I can't say that I remember it thoroughly, so was glad to see it show up on the schedule at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, where I saw it Wednesday night.

And again enjoyed it, about on par with the rating I entered in my "Shows Seen Database" back in 2003.

At Writers, the always superb Felicia P. Fields makes for a fine, feisty and well-sung Ma Rainey, whose recording session establishes  the play's setting, context and structure.

As the show opens, the studio owner, Mr. Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox)--who also seems to serve as the record company profiting from Ma's success--is waiting for her to arrive.

Getting there first are Ma's manager, Irvin (Peter Moore, who I've seen in several shows at Steep Theatre, where he serves as Artistic Director), and then the members of her band.

Playing their instruments onstage, these included pianist Toledo (David Alan Anderson), bassist Slow Drag (A.C. Smith), trombonist Cutler (Alfred H. Wilson) and trumpeter Levee (Kelvin Roston, Jr.).

Levee is a bit younger than the others, and a good bit more wanting to rock the boat, musically and otherwise.

As played by the excellent Roston, he becomes the focal point of the play, even more than Ma, one of whose songs is "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

Ultimately, the play is rather charged, riveting and about much more than a pioneering blues woman.

The dichotomy between the men largely willing to respect authority--black or white--and Levee, who can be seen as ambitious, antagonistic, insubordinate and rightfully progressive all at the same time, is striking and rather allegorical.

And the character of Ma, who must battle the white power-brokers--even as she has the upper hand--but also demands strict obedience from her band members, adds to the power of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and what one might take from it.

But as a night's entertainment, I found it too slow in reaching its boiling point, with almost the entire first act devoted to bantering among the band members (who often throw the n-word at each other, in a way that adds insight to the times).

Wilson was too gifted a writer for the rehearsal room repartee and ribaldry not to have considerable charm and even depth, but Act I was more fair than fantastic.

Act II is far better, dramatically, musically--as we get some full-fledged performances--and meaningfully.

So in full, I can recommend Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and--with Cutler's sing-song count-in to each song take stoking acute recollections--fondly appreciate the memories it stirred from my past.

It's a fine history lesson about a musical pioneer--"the blues gets me out of bed in the morning," she states at one point, imparting that art is life and not mere past-time--but ultimately concerning more widespread matters, with Roston's performance particularly powerful.

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