Black rage—internalized, until it’s not. Stories that carry like the blues. Language that ricochets like jazz. Penetration into the trauma of the black experience in America.
This is the tragicomic world of playwright August Wilson, author of the tremendous decalogue “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of ten plays mapping the black American journey throughout the 20th century—decade by decade—from the vantage point of a Pittsburgh neighborhood.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of the first of the cycle (written in 1982), the first to bring Wilson national acclaim and covers the 1920s. It’s the only installment not set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, but in a recording studio on Chicago’s South Side.
The zesty, vigorous production at 1st Stage is a prime chance to catch one of the Cycle’s enduring works. A group of musicians in 1927 settle in to cut some blues tracks featuring singer Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, one of the first professional black blues singers to record music for mass production. From this historical reference point, wherein we hear snatches of Rainey’s hits like the song which gives the play its title, Wilson comments on black culture, history and identity, the driving themes of his career.
Ma (Thomascena Nelson) is a specimen of a shameful era in American history, the black entertainer navigating success in a segregated society; she’s already wizened, adept at that game, inveterately understanding her power and its limitations.
As a singer herself, Nelson effortlessly becomes the seasoned blues singer. Her presence exudes diva, from her period gown and headdress to her eccentric entourage, but beneath, the imperiousness is a lifetime of knowing the score. She delivers some of the most memorable lines in the play (of which there are many), including “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” and “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.”
Although the play takes its name from one of Ma’s signature tunes, its heart beats among the men down in the band’s rehearsal room. Old-timers Cutler (William T. Newman, Jr.) on guitar and trombone, Toledo (Michael Anthony Williams) on piano and Slow Drag (Jason B. McIntosh) on the upright bass are satisfied to lend their accompaniment—as sidemen and as players in society’s status quo—whereas the brash, ambitious trumpeter Levee (Clayton Pelham, Jr.) aches for something larger, becoming the charge for Wilson’s writing to command glorious heights and the action to tack toward disaster.
closes June 25, 2017
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Watching and listening to the four men’s verbal jam session is a delight. They argue, belittle, lecture, pass on apocryphal stories, reminisce about good times on the road and commiserate over appalling cruelty like the instruments of a jazz quartet—sometimes all at once, sometimes as a sharp or mournful solo—in a showcase of Wilson’s much-celebrated blend of hard-hitting realism and tragic lyricism.
Director Deidra Lawan Starnes has drawn out first-rate performances from the ensemble, with Pelham a standout in the key role of Levee. Pelham is electric, whether good-naturedly jazzing up Ma’s old “jugband” music and putting the moves on her fetching young girlfriend or unleashing a thunderous rage at the memory of a harrowing ordeal. His “challenge to God” monologue late in Act II is a breathless showstopper.
As Levee’s mates, Newman (by day the chief judge of Arlington County’s Circuit Court) is perfectly cast as Cutler, where he uses his bountiful capacity for facial expressions to full employ, and Williams excels in portraying the pianoman pontificator Toledo, though the character suffers from excess writerliness on Wilson’s part.
In my opinion, Wilson’s work got stronger and surer throughout the 1980s and early 90s, but this early gem packs a punch. When performed and produced with conviction, such as this production at 1st Stage, Wilson’s offerings are among the 20th century’s absolute best. There’s much to enjoy in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, from the poetry and humor to the fine work of the actors. But ultimately it’s a lesson. A thought-provoking lesson that hurts.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson. Directed by Deidra Lawan Starnes. Featuring William Aitken, Tracey Farrar, Jason B. McIntosh, Thomascena Nelson, William T. Newman, Jr., Tendo Nsubuga, Joe Palka, Clayton Pelham, Jr., Michael Anthony Williams, and Joshua Witt. Set design by Kathryn Kawecki. Lighting design by John D. Alexander. Costume design by Debra Kim Sivigny. Sound design by Reid May. Props design by Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa. Stage Manager: Laurel Van Landingham. Produced by 1st Stage. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.
Natalie Kroc says
The play may be called “Ma Rainey …” but the image that has popped into my head at offhand times—while at the sink washing dishes, while waiting 18 minutes for the red line—has been of the four gentleman musicians in the basement, arguing and laughing and story-telling and despairing in their “verbal jam session” (to use the reviewer’s turn of phrase). It’s the kind of connection that’s incredibly hard to come by these days, honest discussions about important things ranging from small to huge. It’s the anti-Facebook: free from pretense, meaningful, real. And anytime those four were the center of attention, they just pulled me in.
Levee, the youngest, was a sympathetic fighter against the status quo. Equally sympathetic, though, were the other three, more world-weary, who seemed to take the attitude that at this point, life is too short to fight an unwinnable battle. The character of Toledo, the reviewer says, “suffers from excess writerliness,” and while I see his point—Toledo might be just a bit too much if one was forced to pass time with him in real life—I also found myself relating to his way of coping with life’s injustice and sadness. Who among us hasn’t delved into a book, trying to figure it all out and to be more informed than the next person, no matter the situation—and also to forget what hurts? (Or that could be just me.)
As the play unfolded, I found that the character I didn’t like was Ma. Her scenes felt like a pause from where the action really was—in the basement with the guys. Since then, though, I have come to think that she’s not endearing precisely because she’s “wizened, adept at the game” and has lived “a lifetime of knowing the score.” She uses whatever advantage she can in a world that is all too willing to take advantage of her; she’s no fool, she’s a survivor. And that’s admirable, even if it’s not warm and fuzzy.
Much to my embarrassment, I had been unfamiliar with August Wilson until this point. But after experiencing the strong, quiet confidence of this play, despite a few rough edges, and after doing some online research into Wilson—a very interesting character in his own right—I can say that I’m now on the lookout for the other nine plays in the Cycle.