BWW Review: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM is pitch perfect at Ensemble Theatre
The Ensemble Theatre's production of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM is an immaculate staging of the 1984 Broadway play. It is August Wilson at his best, and features the most talented cast in Houston right now. It is part musical, but has heavy serious things to say about the African American experience in the 1920s. As usual The Ensemble balances these two elements with style and grace, providing an evening that is as entertaining as it is enlightening. They offer music, laughs, and drama that is a gut punch in the right moments.
The story is a simple character study of a blues band recording an album in Chicago during 1927. MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM has the distinction of being the only part of August Wilson's ten play cycle not set in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Basically the show reveals the tensions between the bandmates, their entourage, and the white producer and manager. The musicians explore religion, race relations, and the struggle of modernizing their style to sell better. The entire play is set in the recording studio during one single day. Now and then a song pops up, and that is the lighter part of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM. The real meat comes in when souls are exposed, jealousies flare, and futures destroyed.
The Ensemble Theatre recently won a prestigious award for being one of a small handful of theaters that has produced all ten of the August Wilson's Pittsburgh plays. There is no other company in Houston that is better equipped to handle his material, and this production cements that with ease. It is presented with a casual decadence that perfectly captures the world of the black American musician during this time. Sex, drugs, and a whole mess of the blues all blend together to make the perfect stew to reveal the dark realities lying beneath.
The cast is spectacular, and they disappear into this world without a hitch. Everyone has a naturalness to them that makes the audience transport to 1927 Chicago. Timothy Eric does most of the heavy lifting as the hot-headed horn player named Levee. He has the most firey passion of the musicians, and that proves to be a liability as much as an asset for his character. His monologues are the high points of the evening, and Eric crafts a complicated man who harbors demons in his soul to contrast his angelic horn playing. Wayne DeHart is magical as the old veteran piano player named Toledo. You can't help but love him by the end of the evening, and he has an amazing stage presence that seems effortless and sublime. Jason Carmichael and W+ilbert Williams round out the members of the band, and both match their co-stars in being smooth and beguiling. These four get the bulk of the script, and they handle it as if they were themselves master jazz musicians riffing with each other in dialogue that is as musical as it is coarse.
The titular role of Ma Rainey is played by Roenia Thompson who is appropriately larger than life with an amazing singing voice. She is every inch the diva, and when she blows on stage you realize why the play has her on the marquee. She is a star. Along with her for the ride are her entourage - Anthony August playing her nephew and Callina Anderson as a girlfriend groupie in tow. August portrays the young man with a stutter perfectly. He is playfully disengaged with the world, and just there to dance and sing with no other care in the world. Callina Anderson gets the heavier task of playing a woman who is willing to be objectified by anybody at any time if it suits her needs. She is pure sex, yet the actress gives enough subtext to keep that from becoming comical. There's a glint of danger and hurt there too that balances her character out.
John Stevens is the recording studio manager, and he plays the right notes of malice and disdain as he takes advantage of the group. His white privilege is worn on his sleeve, and he makes a good villain out of an underwritten role. Ed Muth is Ma's manager, and he is appropriately frazzled and flustered throughout. His comic timing is spot on. Kurt Bilanoski gets a cameo as a cop, but makes the most out of it. His role further informs us of the prejudice Ma Rainey and the boys are facing.
Phillip Hall provides pitch perfect musical direction throughout. The Ensemble uses a mix of pre-recordings and live instrumentation, but neither sticks out in any detrimental way. It's important we buy this group as musicians, and that we do. James V. Thomas has built a nicely worn lived in studio to set the stage, and it works wonderfully. Kristie Shackleford's costume design also hits the right notes down to the shoes that cause friction between two of the men.
It fits that this company is called The Ensemble Theatre, because as a whole the entire group is what makes MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM one of the best productions of August Wilson I have seen. This show is not as well-known as perhaps a FENCES or THE PIANO LESSON, but it is vibrant and impactful. The Ensemble has been in Houston for just over forty years, and it routinely showcases some of the best talent this city has to offer. Here they capture dreams and desperation, and do it with the ease of a musician improvising a riff at a piano. It is the kind of show they do best, and a literate drama that deserves an audience.
MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM plays at The Ensemble Theatre through June 3rd with performances Thursday through Sunday. Tickets can be acquired through their website at www.ensemblehouston.com . The box office can be reached by phone at (713) 520-0055.