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BWW Reviews: Huntington Hits For the Cycle With MA RAINEY

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Written by August Wilson, Directed by Liesl Tommy; Scenic and Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Marcus Doshi; Original Music, Sound Design, and Music Direction by Broken Chord; Production Stage Manager, Leslie Sears; Stage Manager, Kevin Robert Fitzpatrick

CAST (in order of appearance): Thomas Derrah, Will LeBow, G. Valmont Thomas, Charles Weldon, Glenn Turner, Jason Bowen, Yvette Freeman, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Timothy John Smith, Corey Allen

Performances through April 8 at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org

In 1986, the Huntington Theatre Company began an affiliation with playwright August Wilson that lasted longer than many modern marriages. Over the next two decades, as part of a cadre of regional theaters led by Yale Repertory Theatre, they worked together to develop eight of the plays that comprise Wilson's Century Cycle. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was the first of his ten plays about the black experience, one for each decade of the 20th century, and HTC completes its presentation of the cycle with the noteworthy production now being staged under the direction of Liesl Tommy.

Acclaimed for her artistry at the helm of Ruined in 2011, once again Tommy skillfully gets at the heart of the story and the characters, evoking the feel of both the racial and generational divides experienced by Ma and her band of musicians. The play is set in a recording studio in Chicago in 1927 with the black songstress doing her damnedest to maintain artistic control of her creation while the white record executive pressures her and her white manager panders to her. Meanwhile, the band members engage in a verbal tug of war which breaks down along age and philosophical lines. Do they play the title song bluesy, the way Ma wants it, or do they use the young trumpeter's version which introduces a jazzy element that pleases the white man? In this one argument over stylistic choices, Wilson depicts the Zeitgeist and sets up the thematic metaphor of the play.

Ma Rainey was a professional blues singer and recording artist in the early decades of the twentieth century and this is nominally a slice of her story. Owing to her talent and admirers, she was comfortable wielding her power insofar as she could. If things didn't work out to her liking in the studio, she would get back on her bus and tour. Yvette Freeman (NBC's ER) is a force of nature when she bursts onto the stage in a frenzy with her followers and a police officer in hot pursuit, immediately establishing the take no prisoners temperament of her character. Freeman's Ma is self-assured and commanding, but also introspective and caring. When she sings, her features soften, her smile broadens, and her whole body delivers the message of a lifetime in song. 

Much of Wilson's drama plays out in the band room where the musicians hang out and rehearse. (Ma Rainey doesn't make her entrance until halfway through the first act.) Cutler (G. Valmont Thomas), Slow Drag (Glenn Turner), and Toledo (Charles Weldon) are the veterans who have seen it all and are inured to the racial hierarchy, grateful that they are able to make music and do not have to haul wood. Levee (Jason Bowen) is the young trumpeter in a big hurry to make his mark with his own music and his own band. He represents the new guard, both musically and societally. As the blues gives way to jazz, the black man has something new that the white man wants, and Levee hopes there is a tradeoff in the power struggle. Watching the way Ma Rainey stands up for herself and demands respect, he intends to achieve that for himself. Yet, he is disrespectful of his elders, those who came before him and paved the way, albeit by doing things the white man's way. 

You can't take your eyes off Bowen, who is captivating as Levee. He is an object in motion, ready to get in someone's face at the slightest provocation, but just as quick to let his emotions flow out of his horn. To portray Levee's cockiness, Bowen coolly struts and swaggers and uses some silky moves to impress Ma's girl Dussie Mae, the sultry Joniece Abbott-Pratt. He employs different body language to interact with each of the other characters. He uses a defensive posture around the older musicians when they try to influence him, but shifts into a deferential, hunched position around the studio owner. Although a recorded soundtrack is used for the band's selections, Bowen's physical connection to his trumpet is organic, from his breathing and embouchure, to fingering the valves, to his balanced stance.   

Thomas, Turner, and Weldon meld seamlessly as the trio, lobbing Wilson's banter back and forth like beach balls in the bleachers at Fenway Park. Cutler is the leader of the group and Thomas conveys his sense of loyalty to Ma Rainey and responsibility to the task, as well as his world weariness. Slow Drag, the bass player, lives up to his moniker as evidenced by Turner's languid movements, but he masks an underlying intelligencE. Wilson's message is voiced by Toledo, the piano player who waxes philosophical about how "to improve the lot of the colored man" and what it means to be a fool. Like Bowen, they convincingly mimic the actions of playing their instruments.

Ma Rainey sets up the white men as the villains on the face of it, but the sad fact remains that the black men use each other as scapegoats due to their inability to strike back at "the man." In the same spirit as the guy who goes home and kicks the dog after his boss chews him out, Levee turns his anger on his colleagues in the face of his disappointment and powerlessness in dealing with Sturdyvant. For his part, the record exec is not inherently evil, but another toothless cog rolling along in the wheel of the way things have always been. Thomas Derrah is a fidgety, impatient fussbudget who appears unctuous thanks to his slicked back, muddy brown hair and little, round black-framed eyeglasses.

"Let me handle it" is the mantra of Ma's manager Irvin, a self-important man who fancies himself the expert on interracial affairs. To hear him talk, one might think that all it takes to resolve the myriad issues is a few soothing words from him, some sandwiches, and a Coca Cola. Will LeBow has a way of letting his body show the man's frustration and insecurity even as he booms out his Al Haig-like proclamations. Timothy John Smith makes a brief but strong appearance as the Chicago cop bent on arresting Ma for allegedly assaulting a taxi driver who refuses to admit her to his cab. He is blustery, but politely edgy with her at the same time as he schmoozes with Irvin.

In her canary yellow dress, Abbott-Pratt flits around the stage like a human-size Tinker Bell, alighting on various laps and creating sparks. She doesn't have many lines of dialogue, but makes her presence felt as an instigator. Corey Allen is the recipient of Ma's affection and warmth as her stuttering nephew Sylvester. He makes an art of suffering in silence and letting his face show all of the reservations he has about performing on the record. Periodically, his slow burn erupts, but he turns down the flame just as quickly.

Tommy conducts this talented ensemble like a virtuoso, building the tension, letting us relax into the humor to lighten the mood, and leaving us stunned with the tragic dramatic moment. Her unhurried pace allows the actors to register reactions and emotions in their facial expressions and gives the audience time to notice these powerful nonverbal cues. The design team evokes the world of the play, with period costumes by Clint Ramos deserving of special mention. He also designed the two room set, with one area as the basement band room and the other as the recording studio with the control booth at the top of a staircase stage right. Lighting Designer Marcus Doshi meets the challenge of frequently switching focus from one area to another as action shifts between the two locations. Broken Chord (Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht) handles original music, sound design, and music direction without a glitch.

With the production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the Huntington comes to the end of an era. It has been an outstanding artistic achievement and certainly a highlight of the company's thirty years. The theater world lost August Wilson when he died in 2005 at the age of sixty, only a year after the debut of Radio Golf, the final chapter of the cycle. He wrote half a dozen other plays between 1973 and 2002 that we might hope to see on the local stage sometime in the future. It also wouldn't be a bad idea to revisit the cycle, this time in chronological order, to keep the work of the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright close to the hearts of the Boston audiences he treasured.

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson (Glenn Turner, Jason Bowen, G. Valmont Thomas, and Charles Weldon)

 

 

 



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