BWW Review: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM at Soulpepper
A layered stage and stellar cast bring dimension to Soulpepper's production of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM. Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, this adaptation of August Wilson's 1982 play follows an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago where the music takes a back seat to discussions of race and human rights.
The show pivots around three groups at the studio: the band, Ma Rainey (Alana Bridgewater) and her team, and the studio owner Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) with Ma's frazzled manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin). Despite being the title character, Ma herself doesn't arrive until late in the first act, leaving plenty of time for the band members - the real leads of the show - to discuss their experiences as black men in early 20th century America.
The veteran members Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre), Slow Drag (Neville Edwards) and Toledo (Beau Dixon) had great chemistry, which helped sell the idea they'd been playing together for many years. The youngest and newest member of the band, Levee, was played with great physicality and emotion by Lovell Adams-Gray. Levee began as the light-hearted jokester, but as the show progressed his change to a frantic, desperate man made him a commanding presence.
When Ma Rainey finally arrived at the studio with her entourage and a police officer at her heels, it was like watching a storm blow onstage. Bridgewater's portrayal of the "mother of the blues" was fantastic, and when she finally got to sing she did so with a strong, rich voice and a commanding presence. Her nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) was a great addition to the ensemble. As the quiet, stuttering young man, Stewart brought a sweetness to the show's otherwise dark story.
The biggest performance of the show was Adams-Gray, though, for his multi-dimensional portrayal of the young trumpeter with plans to be a star himself. As the recording session progressed and he interacted more with the band, Levee's true nature began to show. Adams-Gray made great use of the full stage - not just the set - and his interactions with each of the older band members were fantastic. Dixon's Toledo was a great opposite to Adams-Gray's Levee, with arguments between the two peppering the entire show and leading to a strong show-closing performance from both.
The set design (Ken MacKenzie) was especially striking. By building the studio within the stage, the use of height to separate the different groups helped to illustrate the play's themes. The sound booth, reserved for the white producers, was at the highest point of the set, with the band kept at the bottom level and Ma and her entourage in the middle. The literal placement of the characters within the studio only helped prove Ma's observation that her power exists because white people need her to make money. Each character is given plenty of time to share their story, and the discussions around race made for some shocking scenes that were performed with great conviction by the cast.
MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, presented by Soulpepper, runs through June 2 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON.
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