Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
With its meticulous, luminous, brilliant production of "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" the Huntington Theatre Company completes its presentation of all ten of August Wilson’s "Century Cycle" plays (also known as the "Pittsburgh Cycle," though "Ma Rainey," set in Chicago, deviates in setting from the other nine). The timing is propitious, since this is the Huntington’s 30th anniversary season. Moreover, Wilson and the Huntington enjoyed what the play’s press kit recalls as a "special relationship," with Wilson, who brought seven of the ten plays to the Boston venue before they opened in New York.
The play unfolds in 1927, in a dilapidated recording studio. Two white men--a producer named Sturdyvant (played by Thomas Derrah, who, as he often does, disappears into his role so completely that you might not recognize him) and Ma Rainey’s manager, Irvin (Will LeBow, also in excellent form) do their best to preside over a recording session by the legendary Ma Rainey (Yvette Freeman), a phenomenally talented performer with an outsized personality to match her fame. But their illusion of control over the session is only that, an illusion, and not even one that they buy into themselves. From the outset, Sturdyvant warns Irvin to keep Ma Rainey reigned in, and Irvin does his best, persuading and cajoling and even begging when he needs to. But neither man truly believes that anybody other than Ma Rainey is actually in charge.
The genius of the play is that it’s not really about Ma Rainey at all. Though the character of the play’s title was a real performer, and the song it refers to was a real hit, it’s the fictional session musicians that Wilson focuses on, and they tell a story of oppression, rage, despair, and survival under the thumb of a white, and racist, society.
But they also tell a story of a complex, multi-layered musical milieu. The session players--Cutler (G. Valmont Thomas), Toledo (Charles Weldon), Slow Drag (Glenn Turner), and Levee (Jason Bowen) are four very different men whose lives share common themes. In a way, they are strains of melody, harmony, and counterpoint winding around Wilson’s central theses of rage and determined dignity in the face of constant, overwhelming prejudice. For some, like Toledo, peace lies in a philosophical approach; for others, such as Cutler, hope resides in faith and pragmatism.
Levee, a talented and impassioned young musician who offers up his songs to the rapacious machine of the music business in hopes of becoming famous in his own right, is industrious but also blind to the harsh realities of the world in which he lives. Levee is driven both by ambition and by white-hot rage; he’s deferential to the white guys in suits who run the music business, but otherwise careless about whom he offends on his way toward what he imagines to be his destiny. Needless to say, Levee clashes with the other session musicians, and his powerlessness in the face of institutionalized discrimination and exploitation turn him into a time bomb of pent-up aggression and fury.
Ma Rainey herself is on stage just long enough to deliver a comprehensive portrait of a woman who has learned how to dominate and assert herself in any situation. Her demands are beyond excessive; she insists that her nephew (Corey Allen) take a speaking part in one song even though the young man suffers from a severe stutter. She also has a pretty young woman named Dussie Mae (Joneice Abbot-Pratt) in tow, over whom she fawns like a lover--until, that is, the pretty young thing gets underfoot. (No matter: If Ma Rainey pushes her aside for the business of keeping her producer and manager in line, Dussie Mae can always go flirt with Levee, who is as hot for romance as he is for music.
Thomas, Weldon, Turner, and Bowen turn in fully dimensional performances. Not every character has a chance to hold forth and tell his story, but the actors are all so skilled that they create rich and rounded personas right before our eyes. The same is true of Freeman (a regular on "ER" as Nurse Haleh Adams): She only has the chance to sing one or two songs in their entirety, and yet so fully present is she in the role that you might feel that you had just seen and heard her in a full length concert. In a word, Freeman is fabulous.
The production’s level of detail and nuance extends to the set design by Clint Rams (who also attends to the play’s costuming requirements, dressing everyone in sturdy period clothing and fitting Ma Rainey and Dussie Mae with suitably scrumptious outfits). This looks and feels like a whole world that exists in another time--a time both golden with a glow of nostalgia, and overtly cruel toward African Americans, a "best of times / worst of times" period. Wilson’s aim in the Century Cycle was to set a play about the African American experience in each of the decades of the 1900s. To do so, he had to have an acute sense of what was good, as well as bad, about bygone times. This production brings both glamor and pathos to Wilson’s play, and makes the ’20s roar once more.