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BWW Reviews: Dull Play, Polished Performance - MA RAINEY at Center Stage

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Let me start with a heretical remark: despite all the esteem he enjoys and the frequency with which his plays are staged, August Wilson just isn't all that great of a dramatist. His strengths, and also his much greater shortcomings, are exemplified in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), now being revived at Baltimore's Center Stage.

It looks as if Wilson started this play with a mission, two good ideas, and two skills. The mission was largely didactic: to remind audiences, particularly black ones, of the sheer psychic weight of Jim Crow and racist institutions upon African Americans of the 1920s. One good idea was to use a recording session, specifically the December 1927 recording session that produced Paramount Catalogue Number 12590A, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and three other songs as a framing device. The other was to display a wide variety of black responses (ranging from stoicism to running amok), to a wide variety of indignities inflicted by whites (ranging from the purchase of song copyright at prices that amounted to theft all the way up to rape and lynching). Wilson's skills included the ability to craft intense dramatic monologues that could hold the attention, and the (albeit much less valuable) ability to produce sitcom-grade comic banter. What Wilson lacked - and he lacked it profoundly - was the ability to weave all this stuff together very well.

The result is a play that, for much of its considerable length, will hold the attention only of the easily pleased, those who are willing to serve as laugh tracks for a series of tepid wisecracks sprinkled through expository banter like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. And when the play gets serious, as it does fitfully, and especially right at the end, it does so in such contrast to the foolery that went before that the heavy material seems lifted from a different play.

To be fair, Wilson goes about delaying the main action of the play for a reason: he obviously wants to acquaint the audience with the sidemen. These characters, all fictional (the real Ma Rainey was backed by stars from the King Oliver and Louis Armstrong bands), are mostly not out to set the world on fire, but to make it through this life enduring what life has to inflict, plus the terrible extras added by largely unthinking but occasionally malevolent white racism. Most of the first act is devoted to introducing them. It's a bit as if Shakespeare had decided to devote about half of Midsummer Night's Dream to the "mechanicals," the ordinary uneducated joes called upon to stage the play-within-the-play. Of course, Wilson's sidemen are "mechanicals" with emotional secrets that we are naturally going to hear before the evening wends to its close. But the banter setting up the monologues in which the secrets get delivered frequently seems to go nowhere. Case in point, Toledo (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), is supposed to be the wise old head of the group, with a dead-pan delivery for his observations leavened by just a smattering of book learning. But his observations are neither especially wise nor particularly coherent, and the character fails to seize or hold his designated dramatic ground.

The "mechanical" who stands out from this get-along-as-best-one-can crew is Levee (Maurice McRae). Levee is more ambitious and creative, but also more deeply traumatized by Jim Crow than the others, and we can see his comeuppance coming a mile off.

The play finally clears exposition when Ma Rainey (E. Faye Butler) herself turns up for the session, late. This lateness is not only a device to enable the exposition, but expressive of Rainey's character as someone who cannot be controlled, and especially not controlled (other than being economically exploited) by the white recording companies. Butler and Director Irene Lewis have decided to play Rainey as being so loud and out-of-control she comes across most of the time as a bipolar patient on a high and without meds. The result is to make Rainey less likeable than she ought to be considering what Wilson plans to do with the character.

You want to like someone who makes the terrible mistake she does, to see her flaw as being of a piece with some admirable kind of strength. But with Rainey's strength coming across as obnoxiousness more than an assertion of power and dignity, the audience may not care as much as it is supposed to when Rainey virtues drive her to make her big mistake. Her strength, supposedly exhibited in her prima donna ways, is that she will not cede any degree of artistic control over the recording session to anyone, be it the white recording engineer, her white manager who really isn't on her side all that much - or her creative sideman Levee, in whom she ought to see a fellow spirit. All she can see, though, is defiance of her authority. Her ill-judged retribution for that perceived defiance helps set up the tragic denouement. As she turns on her would-be ally, Levee, so he likewise turns on the old head Toledo, like a domino falling. Because Lewis' direction has too thoroughly unleashed the inner psychotic in Rainey, this may make the crisis of the play seem more random and less tragic than Wilson intended.

Still, even if Lewis had made different choices with Rainey's characterization, Wilson's problems with mood continuity and Levee's character would probably spike the tragedy. Levee has been clowning too much, far too much, tap-dancing and profiling flamboyant footwear and flirting and flashing weaponry vainly. We have been laughing at him so consistently that even after the monologue in which he bares his inner pain, he is hard to take seriously. The sudden unhappy ending is likely to leave theatergoers with a "where did that come from?" sense.

The other thing that detracts from the play as a drama is Wilson's pedanticism. As noted, the personnel at the recording session are all fictional, meaning that the play bears the same relationship to the historical December 1927 recording date that Inglorious Basterds does to V-E Day. Well and good; Shakespeare took a lot of liberties with the events of 1399 in Richard II. But what Wilson has done is to reduce it all to agitprop. Rainey's backup musicians in real life, and indeed throughout her various Paramount sessions, were artistic successes in their own right, and, one suspects, could boast of some successes in their lives. That bit of history would not work well with Wilson's agenda. Almost every black character seems to have a back story grounded in the experience of oppression, and all three of the white characters could practically be wearing signs reading "OPPRESSOR" stitched to their costumes. Though I know little of the historical Rainey's own interactions with the recording industry and the constabulary, my instant reaction was that surely Cadillac Records must better have captured the complex personalities of the white and largely Jewish people who mainly engineered and sold the records that brought black performers to black audiences in the 20th Century. In real life, even profiteers usually have some heart and sympathy.  Wilson, by contrast, lays on the noble-blacks-and-exploitative-whites material with a trowel. Even if it weren't offensive and overstated, it would be simplistic and boring.

Nothing said about the fatal messiness of the play should be thought a criticism of the performers and artistic team, who are universally splendid. Butler's Rainey, while too over-the-top for me (even in a part that calls for over-the-top) brings a local favorite back to Center Stage, and she gets to belt out most of two numbers like the historical Rainey, only, candidly, better. And Thomas Jefferson Byrd, as Toledo, has a wicked way of delivering lines that seem perfectly ordinary until a split second after the utterance is complete. Ricardo Hernandez' set, combining the realistic reconstruction of a recording studio with an abstract poster-board effect listing most of the titles Rainey recorded in her five-year studio career, is a marvel. And all of the production values are right.

No, the flaw is in the programming. Center Stage, as Maryland's premier regional theater, should stop bringing back Wilson season after season (eight times in twenty years, per Lewis' note in the program). It is understandable why it does this; as Lewis notes, Wilson's plays are "among the most Popular Productions we mount." But just because they are popular does not mean they are good. This Emperor has no clothes. Center Stage should move on.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, April 7-May 9, at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21202. 410-332-0033, Tickets $10 - $60. Adult language, adult situations, violence.



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