Story: Four black musicians arrive at a Chicago recording studio on a wintry day in 1927. They comprise the band members who accompany renowned blues singer Ma Rainey on the albums she records for a company run by a white producer named Sturdyvant. They’re all in town to record Ma’s latest record, but she’s running late and the tapes won’t roll until she arrives.
With time to kill, old-timers Toledo, Slow Drag and Cutler swap stories and jokes in between practicing various numbers. The youngest member of the quartet, Levee, isn’t nearly as laid back. He has ambitions to form his own band and record his original music, the latter of which has been encouraged by Sturdyvant. Although no formal contracts have been signed, Sturdyvant has taken several of Levee’s songs to listen to them and determine their relative value, or so he says.
When Ma finally shows up, to the relief of her manager Irvin, she’s accompanied by her stuttering nephew Sylvester and a young woman. She insists that Sylvester record the introduction to her latest song, just one in a series of aggravations for the band, her manager and producer that lead to short fuses and confrontations in the cheap and decrepit old studio.
Highlights: The Black Rep was just the second theater in the country, after Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, to present all 10 of the plays in playwright August Wilson’s daunting and extraordinary “Pittsburgh cycle” of works set in each decade of the 20th century, with all but Ma Rainey set in Pittsburgh. With this exhilarating and glorious production directed in crisp, clear and cogent style by Ed Smith, The Black Rep embarks on a second journey through last century as seen through the fiercely sharp focus of the late Wilson.
Other Info: Wilson’s dialogue is a joy to hear. His writing is so conversational that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a production rather than eavesdropping on people engaged in lively banter. At the same time, his words poignantly express observations about the social and political mores of an era in understated fashion that makes it all the more heartbreaking. For the musicians who work with Ma Rainey, it’s a fact of life that their considerable talents won’t deliver them very far from the racism, overt or subtle, that follows them on their travels.
Two magnificent, absorbing monologues by Levee brilliantly emphasize this point, one in each of the play’s two compelling acts. Watching how Smith blocks those scenes, as the other band members listen and relate to the young man’s impassioned stories of injustice, epitomize the excellence of this presentation.
The cast is uniformly superb, but it’s the players who inhabit the roles of Ma and her musicians who make the show sing. As Ma, youthful jaki-terry belies her age absorbed in Katie Gray’s imposing costume to show us a woman who uses her considerable talents to exert what influence she can in demanding the treatment of a star. She’s pushy, obstinate and determined to have her way, personality quirks that jaki-terry ably demonstrates as fully as the powerful voice she exhibits as Ma records her tunes.
Ron Himes, Erik Kilpatrick, Antonio Fargas and Ronald Connor are totally convincing and masterfully engaging as Toledo, Slow Drag, Cutler and Levee, respectively. It’s a rush to watch Himes slowly weave stories as the intellectual, introspective Toledo, or Fargas and Connor parry and thrust between Cutler’s sincere Christianity and the rage exhibited by Levee that is filled with expletives and blasphemy that drives the older musician to confrontation. Kilpatrick’s Slow Drag is a neutral but reassuring force who goes with the flow while trying to tone down the excitable Levee.
There’s a splendid turn by Maurice Demus as Ma’s overshadowed nephew attempting to placate his intractable aunt. Chad Morris does a fine job as Ma’s agent Irvin, tip-toeing through a constant series of mine fields set by Ma or the penny-pinching producer Sturdyvant. The latter part is nicely played by Tom Wethington, particularly in a quietly savage scene near the climax when the producer subtly ruins Levee’s shot at stardom. Evann Jones has some good moments as the young woman, Dussie Mae, while Aaron Markham completes the cast in a short scene as a policeman.
Tim Case’s set design gives us a ramshackle old studio with peeling paint and erratic radiators spitting out insufficient heat, with a second-floor producing room, a main floor studio and a basement where the band rehearses at the front of the stage, all lit handsomely by Jim Burwinkel. Daryl Harris’ costumes sport spiffy togs for the musicians and stylish suits for others, and Robin Weatherall’s sound design accentuates the time and place. Robert Van Dillen provides an array of props, such as old Coke bottles and microphones, to complement various scenes.
With this stirring and jolting presentation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Black Rep is off to a rousing start in its second tour of Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle.
Play: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Group: The Black Rep
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: Wednesdays through Sundays through May 13 (except April 25)
Tickets: From $20 to $47.50; contact 534-3810, 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein