BWW Reviews: Portland Stage Cries the Blues in MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM
Portland Stage Cries the Blues in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
"Blues are a way of understanding," Ma Rainey tells her band in the second act of August Wilson's 1984 play set in a 1920s recording studio in Jim Crow era Chicago. And, indeed, Wilson uses music as a means of making sense of the African-American experience in a world scarred by racism and violence.
The Portland Stage's new production, which opens its 2013-2014 season, is a tautly directed, intensely acted interpretation of Wilson's meditation on what it is like to be black in a white man's world. The play, which uses the a quasi-musical blues structure of long, seemingly improvised solos interspersed with short rhythmic exchanges of dialogue, builds slowly and tensely to its chilling climax. Along the way, it penetrates the recesses of the musicians' hearts, their troubled pasts and their tenuous presents. And it examines the high cost of "making it" in white America, where, for all their artistic talent and success, these determined entertainers remain faceless and invisible. Delivering Wilson's prose with an engaging blend of humor and pathos, the Portland Stage Company's cast scales the poetic heights of the playwright's genius.
Jade King Carroll directs with a keen sense of the rhythm, flow, and phrasing of Wilson's dialogue, and she seamlessly effects the transitions between the private world of the band room and the more public battleground of the studio. Moreover, she is masterful at eliciting from her actors performances of colorful individuality.
Tina Fabrique is a raw, determined Ma Rainey whose demands are part of a calculated strategy to command her version of respect. As her harried manager, Irvin, Tom Bloom coveys the exasperation of a man for whom expediency is everything, while Tony Reilly plays studio-owner Sturdyvant with an appropriately disagreeable callousness. Winston Duke makes a charmingly clumsy Sylvester, Ma Rainey's stuttering nephew, and Nyahalé Allie as "Ma Rainey's gal" plays Dussie Mae with opportunistic allure.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" src="http://newimages.bwwstatic.com/upload10/585881/band_edited-1.jpg" style="float:left; height:264px; margin:5px; width:400px" />However, it is to the quartet of musicians that the play's emotional core is entrusted. Harvy Blanks is a wise, long-suffering Cutler, a man who has endured the vicissitudes of life without losing his sense of humor or his love of music. Ray Anthony Thomas offers a quiet, often provocative presence as bassist, Slow Drag. Kevin T. Carroll endows Toldeo with an almost evangelical philosophical fervor. "We're all leftovers," he posits in his monologue on the history of black-white relations, but this unvarnished assessment does little to dampen his energy or enthusiasm. And perhaps, that is why he ultimately becomes Levee's unintended victim.
As Levee, the play's angry young man in the grips of an existential crisis, Warner Miller gives a magnificently compelling performance, searing in his Act I monologue about his mother's rape and father's death and shattering in his complete unraveling in Act II. From the start Miller creates a man so wired that he is constantly on The Edge - manic in his moments of excitement, crazed and dark in his plunges into the depths of his damaged soul. For Levee God is either asleep or "he is the white man's God," and in this wasteland he would willingly sell his soul to the devil By the play's terrifying conclusion he has done just that without any of the Faustian compensations.
The unit set by Anita Stewart is attractive and effective. It divides the stage into a two-level studio and a basement band room, facilitating organic scene shifts. Gregg Carville's lighting makes extensive use of cross fades to bolster the design concept and bathes the stage in a warm light which complements Stewart's neutral tones. Loren Shaw's costumes harmonize nicely - subdued earth tones for all the musicians except Levee, who stands out in his flashy blue suit, and Ma Rainey, who dazzles in her red sequined dress. Karin Graybash's sound design is beautifully balanced and rich; she manages artfully the illusion that the actors in the quartet are actually playing on stage.