BWW Review: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM Offers a Searing Look at a Tension-Filled Recording Session
Unfortunately, racism, be it between races or religions, is as rampant today as ever. But what was it like in 1927 when such things were not discussed and accepted as part of day-to-day life? Just what did white racism in the early recording industry do to the hard-working black musicians who were barely able to earn a living in those days, let alone be able to deal with offensive treatment from the white business owners without the threatened loss of whatever wages they may be able to obtain? And how would that oppression create an atmosphere of distrust between band members?
Phylicia Rashad directs August Wilson's groundbreaking play "Ma Rainey'S BLACK BOTTOM" which depicts the racism and exploitation in the music industry through a 1927 recording session in Chicago with a legendary blues singer. The play was inspired by the real-life Gertrude "Ma" Rainey who dared to speak up for her rights since "White folks don't understand about the blues.... They don't understand that's life's way of talking. You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life."
The cast features, in alphabetical order, Greg Bryan, Keith David, Jason Dirden, Damon Gupton, Matthew Henerson, Nija Okoro, Lamar Richardson, Ed Swidey, Glynn Turman and LiLlias White, all of whom portray a group of musicians, a famous singer and her entourage, and the operators of the recording studio where they all meet to record Ma Rainey's next hit song.
Like all of August Wilson's plays, this one contains more dialogue than perhaps is needed, with the first act seemingly bogged down at times as you listen to four musicians (Damon Gupton as Cutler, Glynn Turman as Toledo, Keith David as Slow Dawg, Jason Dirden as Levee) stuck in a rehearsal room as they banter about life, women, music, and a much-loved pair of new shoes. It's a shame these brilliant musicians were not allowed to share their skills in more than just one song during the show as they rocked the house. Make no mistake; this play is NOT a musical but a hard-hitting drama about the inequities of life.
As the men get frustrated with waiting, Ma Rainey (LiLlias White) finally arrives with her entourage (Nija Okoro as Dussie Mae and Lamar Richardson as the stuttering Sylvester) and immediately makes demands on how the recording session will proceed, even stalling everything until someone runs out to get her three Coca-Colas. While this type of diva attitude is accepted as fact today, back in 1927, a black woman making demands on white studio owners would have been greeted with disdain by all others involved, be they black or white. But Ma knows her value and as such, believes her demands need to be met or she will not do what others expect of her since she is the real talent of the group. She was a very modern-thinking woman in a time when most were taught to get married, stay home, have babies, and clean the house and want nothing more from life.
The rather unexpected and shocking ending will take you by surprise as Levee's much-loved pair of new shoes causes a physical confrontation with even-tempered band leader Toledo after the musicians' banter switches to more racially-motivated topics after their patience is on edge following a long. frustrating day in the studio. I guarantee you will look at the scene from several points of view and ask yourself how things could have possibly progressed to the breaking point over what seems like such an innocuous incident. Or was it?
Tickets for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" are available by calling (213) 628-2772 or online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Tickets range from $25 - $85 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.
Photos by Craig Schwartz