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Review: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM at 1st Stage

Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, billed as Mother of the Blues, was a pioneering African American recording artist popular among African Americans in the South during the Roaring Twenties. Playwright August Wilson resurrects Ma's pioneering personality for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the third play in his major ten-play Century Cycle, which chronicles the African American experience across the decades of the 20th century.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in a recording studio in 1927 Chicago. Ma's (Thomascena Nelson) fast-talking white manager Irvin (Joe Palka) is preoccupied with convincing overbearing studio owner Mel Sturdyvant (William Aitkin) that he can control Ma. Sturdyvant is man who sees no reason why Ma should have any say in what she sings or when she comes and goes; a double whammy that sets the tone for the entire production.

Ma's band arrives on time and is ushered into the band room by Irvin. Bass player Slow Drag (Jason B. McIntosh), trombone player Cutler (William T. Newman Jr.), trumpet player Levee (Clayton Pelham, Jr.), and cerebral piano player Toledo (Michal Anthony Williams) are all distinct personalities shaped by their personal (and collective) experiences as African Americans. Levee's ambition to form a jazz-band, his penchant to cow-tow to Sturdyvant, and his lack of respect for Ma cause the friction around which Ma Rainey's Black Bottom revolves.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom hinges on Pelham's measured deployment of a bottled rage that propels the ups and downs of this rollercoaster production and mercifully, distracts from the awkward moments that would otherwise overwhelm this production.

Ma declines to arrive on time and her late entrance speaks volumes. Her late arrival and demands may or may not be a calculated act of revenge but what resonates is her insistence to treated like the profitable recording artist she is.

Wilson's contributions to the American theatrical canon are innumerable and there is no arguing that Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is well worth further research and contemplation. Normally, 1st Stage is a welcome home for plays that may not be glamorous or super edgy but are nevertheless important contributions to the D.C. theatre scene. Ostensibly, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom fits the bill.

But this so-so production just feels a bit off. A notable number of delivery flubs distracts from potentially powerful performances. Perhaps I arrived on an "off" night but I'm going to chalk it up to a general lack of chemistry between cast members.

Director Deidra LaWan Starnes makes some odd choices. I am a fan of compartmentalizing an open stage and keeping actors onstage in a different "room," even if they are not active participants in a scene. Typically, it facilities a realistic, but deliberately muted, atmosphere but in this production, the effect was marred by a lack of, well, realistic interaction and lackluster miming over a considerable period of time.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom chronicles the role of music in the African American experience. Excepting Nelson's exceptional vocals, there is no authentic music in this production. The rest of the music in this production is mimed and not entirely successfully. For example, Williams is was forced to hover above the piano keys during musical numbers, which makes parts of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom appear almost farcical. There are a number of ways that Starnes could have combatted these failings.

Nelson's vocals outmatched her acting ability but I would have happily traded an ounce of acting ability for musicality.

None of this detracts from Sound Designer Reid May's outstanding efforts. His sound design is the saving grace of this performance. His sound design is by no means tinny or bottled. Lighting Deisgner John D. Alexander, Props Designers Deb Cherie and Kay Rzasa, Set Designer Kathryn Kawecki, and Costume Designer Debra Sivigny round out the production team.

Tracey Farrar and Tendo Nsubuga star as Ma's girlfriend and stuttering nephew.

Important content and several exceptional performances outweigh 1st Stage's flawed production of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Running Time: 2 hours including a 20-minute intermission

Advisory: Adult themes and language

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom runs through June 25th at 1st Stage located at 1524 Spring Hill Road, McLean, VA 22102. For tickets call (703) 854-1856 or click here.

Photo: (L-R) Clayton Pelham, Jr., William T. Newman, Michael Anthony Williams, and Jason B. McIntosh in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at 1st Stage. The show runs through June 25, 2017 in Tysons Corner. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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