Jevetta Steele is Ma Rainey
Photo by Michal Daniel
Penumbra Theatre presents "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at the Guthrie Theater through March 6. The August Wilson play, set in the late 1920s, depicts blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey as she prepares to lay down a new record in a South Side Chicago studio, and how even the most legendary singer of her day had to fight for every scrap of respect she could get.
Thinking of seeing the show? Check out these review excerpts - follow the links to read them in their entirety.
Divas don't come any more high maintenance than the title character of playwright August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Unyielding in her demands and prone to volatile outbursts at the slightest resistance, Ma Rainey would be insufferable were it not for her enormously gifted (and equally profitable) vocal ability. And yet Ma Rainey's exacting stipulations, whether as sensible as approving her musical arrangements or as superfluous as having Coca-Cola on hand at every recording session, do not merely reflect an out of control ego. No, there's a pragmatic rationale to Ma's every demand, a justification sown under social oppression. Expressed through the cathartic essence of the blues, Penumbra Theatre Company's production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, now running at the Guthrie, provocatively uncovers the disfiguring scars of bigotry and racism.
August Wilson's engrossing script follows one particularly chaotic recording session in the life of Ma Rainey, popularly known as the Mother of the Blues. As Ma Rainey's white producer and white manager fret over the infamously unpredictable singer's late arrival, the backing band passes the time with an initially easygoing banter that grows progressively tense. Three of the band members are musical journeymen, session players employed to follow direction. The fourth, however, is an outspoken trumpet player named Levee who nurses aspirations of artistic innovation. Fueled by his own impassioned vision of the blues, Levee stands in direct opposition to Ma Rainey's uncompromising will, assuring a showdown that will make this recording session anything but harmonious.
A marvel of tuneful composition, director Lou Bellamy plays August Wilson's script like the blues, steering the prevailing mood through each intuitively timed note. Much of the first act's charm rests with a group of men shooting the breeze, only occasionally allowing a glimpse of deeper meaning. A conversation about shoes, for example, speaks volumes about these characters' sense of position and pride. And these four men bust each other's chops mercilessly, only pausing when the subject cuts too close to the bone. Wilson's dialogue possesses a sculpture's exactitude coupled with a poet's sense of rhythm, molding an everyday vernacular to each character's unique personality.
...Though Ma Rainey and Levee clash over control of the music, neither has an exclusive claim to ownership. As Ma Rainey's Black Bottom so resoundingly demonstrates, the blues belong to anyone moved to feel deep emotion, a characteristic certain to include those fortunate enough to witness this remarkable production.
We're a half-decade beyond the death of August Wilson. That's long enough so that every production of one of his plays no longer feels like an elegy, but not long enough for him to feel like a historical figure. It's a peculiar, liminal time for devotees of his work, and that sense of reflection permeates Penumbra Theatre Company's lovely but sometimes disjointed production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at the Guthrie Theater.
Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927 and centered on the eponymous diva and her back-up band, "Ma Rainey" interweaves themes of power and race, talent and desire, approach and avoidance. It was the second script Wilson wrote in his 10-play cycle chronicling the black experience in America during the 20th century, and within its pages, Wilson begins to show the mastery of image and language that would bring him two Pulitzer Prizes and a high place in the lexicon of American playwrights.
But there is a price to be paid for all of these gorgeous words. The play can sometimes feel like a loosely connected series of jaw-dropping, galvanizing set pieces than an event with a single, coherent through-line. Piano man and philosopher Toledo's ruminations about the black man eating society's leftovers is rendered with a clear-eyed sense of frustration and reality by Abdul Salaam El Razzac.
James T. Alfred plays up-and-coming trumpeter Levee, and his tale of his mother's assault by a gang of white men is rendered with the kind of horrific realism that brings the bile to the back of your throat. But the connective bridges among these stories and the countless other riffs told in "Ma Rainey" aren't consistently present, and the final, wrenching scene has a whiff of deus ex machina.
Penumbra artistic director and Wilson intimate Lou Bellamy thus cannot forge all of the connections, but he does give his cast -- many of whom have long associations with Wilson's work -- room to maneuver and invent in a production that pulses with the varying divertimenti of jazz without straying too far from the essential themes.
...Bellamy's staging of this jazz-and-blues-suffused drama unfolds with inspiring lucidity and lyricism.
Actor Jevetta Steele is wondrous as the title character, the mother of the blues who prefers to be called Madame. The character is larger than life, arriving in hullabaloo with an entourage that includes a police officer who is trying to arrest her.
Steele, best known for her singing -- her one sassy, soulful song is worth the "Ma" admission -- shows off powerful dramatic chops . She commands the stage with volatility and danger. Her Ma is more Greek goddess than diva.
Alfred, dressed in red by costume designer Mathew LeFebvre, has the cockiness of a prize fighter with a gift for gab. He bounces around the stage like a Muhammad Ali, ready to rumble. And as he shows us his ambition, we want to root for him.
Bellamy has cast only top-shelf winners in this play, which takes place on Vicki Smith's three-zone set. Wilson veteran Abdul Salaam El Razzac imbues Toledo with sagacity and cool.
Phil Kilbourne depicts Irvin, Ma's white manager, as if he were a water balloon being squeezed between two strong hands. And, in his delivery, he takes the sting out of "boys," which is what he calls the men. Tezla's Sturdyvant is unctuous, but he does not ooze too much oil. He comes across as a cold businessman, profiting from the sounds of suffering that he traps in a box.
James Craven, who plays trombone player Cutler, and William John Hall, who plays bassist Slow Drag, perform in the show the way they do in a band: as strong, solid ensemble players.
Even the smaller roles in "Ma" are notable. Lerea Carter drips eroticism as Dussie Mae, Ma's gorgeously endowed girlfriend, while Ahanti Young's Sylvester, Ma's stuttering nephew, is delivered with touching tenderness in a production that is superlative.
So have you seen "Ma Rainey?" If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.