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BWW Preview: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM Mixes Lighthearted Music with Deeper Themes

By: Jun. 01, 2016
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Photo Credit: Mark Clayton Southers

The Green Room of the Garden Theater will soon be filled with fun 1920's music along with conflict and heavy themes.

Beginning on June 2, Short North Stage theater company is set to present "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" as a part of its year-long August Wilson festival. So far, there have been lectures, gallery exhibitions, a reading, and PAST Productions presented Two Trains Running in March. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," directed by Mark Clayton Southers, is the first full-length play presented by Short North Stage as part of the festival.

The play, released in 1982, is one of August Wilson's 10-play Pittsburgh Century cycle, which chronicles the twentieth century lives of African Americans decade by decade. In 1985, it won New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is set in a run-down recording studio in Chicago in 1927, where Ma Rainey, the legendary "Mother of Blues" fights to get her song "Black Bottom" recorded the way she wants.

Actor Bryant Bentley plays trumpet player Levee, one of the people trying to disturb Ma Rainey's vision, in his first production for Short North Stage.

Bentley's first audition as an actor back in 1997 was actually for another August Wilson play, "Fences," and this got him interested in the playwright. He also took part in Catco's 2007 production of Wilson's "Piano Lesson."

"It's addictive, once you dive into any of his scripts, you want to know more," he says.

He dove even deeper into Wilson's work when he met some "Wilsonians". Wilsonians see themselves as protoges of Wilson, people who really know and understand his work and creative process. He added that director Southers fits into that category.

Bentley says his character wants to get to level of respect that Ma Rainey has as a musician and bonafide star from both her black and white peers.

"There's a lot of jealousy and envy. He feels that if he smiles and grins and plays the game until he gets to a certain point, then he can call the shots," Bentley says, adding that Levee allows his arrogance and bitterness about the past get in the way.

Bentley admits that Levee is a dark character, and one that the audience might not like on first impression. He hopes that the audience can see the facets of his character when his back story is revealed later in the play.

"What I hope the audience would get from this character is that you're looking at some people who have really been damaged. To see what this world can do to you if you're not spiritually grounded, if you don't have the right upbringing, if you're used to seeing violence," he says.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" presents lighthearted moments mixed in with darker, more serious moments, taking the audience on a roller coaster.

It's something that when its overwith, I truly belive you'll have to take a breath after because its so deep," Bentley says. "I belive everyone can relate to it, white or black."
Short North Stage is set to perform August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" starting June 2 at 8 p.m. in the Green Room of the Garden Theater, running through June 21. Tickets are $30 for reserved and $25 for general admission. For more information, visit the Short North Stage website.


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