Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
By Perry Tannenbaum
Few playwrights, black or white, would write a line so richly laden with poignancy as “Somewhere the moon has fallen through a window and broken into thirty pieces of silver” only to bury it in the silent text of his prologue. Just to ensure that such a line would be spoken out loud, Tennessee Williams would have temporarily deputized one of his characters as his mouthpiece so that this line would have a life in our ears.
Yet somehow, the “Somewhere” line dropped into the intro of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom perfectly describes the setting of August Wilson’s 1984 drama. Ma Rainey, her entourage, and her jazz quartet gather at a one o’clock rendezvous with Ma’s nervous manager, Irwin, and record studio boss Sturdyvant. While Irwin is careful not to rouse Ma’s mighty temperament and ego, Sturdyvant’s regard for Ma extends no further than to the pieces of silver her recordings can stream into his coffers.
So I can think of a personal as well as an artistic reason why Wilson elected to inter his telling line. A man who conceives of a ten-play series of plays that will chronicle the history of his people through every decade of the 20th century probably wouldn’t preserve, shepherd, and showcase a 30-pieces line like that with the same urgent care that we might. Or frankly, surveying the crew he assembles for this 1927 studio session, Wilson could have soberly concluded that none of these folk, black or white, had the discernment or eloquence to deliver such a lyrical line.
What comes out of Ma’s mouth is almost always salty, bitter, and infused with rage, while her nephew Sylvester, a stutterer, struggles to say anything at all – even as Ma, laying on more pressure, insists that he deliver the spoken intro to her “Black Bottom” recording. These are the two people who present the most daunting challenges for the whites in the recording studio.
But as the split layout of the Pease Auditorium stage faithfully discloses in Jennifer O‘Kelly’s shambling set design, this CPCC Theatre production of Ma Rainey is very much an upstairs-downstairs story. We spend as much time downstairs in the musicians’ rehearsal room – Cutler on trombone, Toledo on piano, Slow Drag on bass, and Levee on trumpet – and the latter half of the tragic denouement unfolds there.
Needless to say, there is as much tension downstairs between the musicians as there is between Ma, the truculent Sturdyvant, and the ever-appeasing Irvin. Cutler seems to run the show downstairs from a business standpoint, accountable for getting the band to show up on time, distributing the pay, and counting out the downbeats. Levee is the young buck with the big ideas, confident that his arrangements of Ma’s tunes will be preferred to her own, and planning to sign on independently with Sturdyvant so he can record his own songs with his own band.
Although the inevitability of a clash between Ma and Levee isn’t exactly trumpeted when we first meet them, it is deep-set into the structure of the script. Both Ma and Levee arrive significantly later to the gig than Sturdyvant or Cutler expect – though Ma’s arrival is later, louder, and more tumultuous. So the outcome of these prima donnas’ collision is also fairly predictable.
Since at least 1998, Corlis Hayes has been involved in several August Wilson plays around town, including The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Fences as both a player and a director. Although line problems cropped up occasionally in the rehearsal room, lengthening the production to a running time of nearly 2:20 plus intermission, Hayes directs with a sure feel for Ma Rainey’s moody, spasmodic pacing, and Tony Wright’s fight choreography aptly points up the climaxes.
Jonavan Adams first teamed up with Hayes in 2008, when I felt that The Piano Lesson should have been more forte. As Levee, there are welcome times when Adams goes fortissimo on us, particularly in his mighty monologues and crises. Yet there are still a few moments when we’re getting to know Levee that Hayes should whisking Adams downstage so that we can hear him better and other moments that Adams zips through unclearly. More forgivable toward the end are the moments when Levee is desperately talking to himself.
Clearly, this is a man who is haunted by his childhood and partially imprisoned by it – very emblematic of his people.
Pitted against Adams as Ma is Shar Marlin, who made her first splash on the local scene six years ago as the matriarch in George C. Wolfe’s “Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” and hasn’t looked back. With both Bessie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston’s Blues Speak Woman in her rearview mirror, Marlin takes on another outsized personality with perfect aplomb. Called upon to sing Rainey’s signature blues, Marlin delivers ornery volume laced with gutsy growls. And believe me, the force of her first entrance is worth waiting for.
With trombonist Tyrone Jefferson tackling the roles of Cutler and this production’s musical director, the jazz behind Rainey – and behind the scenes downstairs – has a unique authenticity. When Cutler gives his oft-repeated “One… Two…You know what to do” cue, three musicians respond from somewhere offstage while he himself delivers the trombone fills. Jefferson, the arranger and musical director behind numerous recent productions, proves to be quite capable as an actor.
Gagan Hunter turns pianist Toledo into a slightly starchy back-porch philosopher, which seems about right, and soft-spoken Willie Stratford – who really needs to be brought downstage – brings an abundance of cool to Slow Drag. In real life, Ma Rainey was indeed the Mother of the Blues, and there was also a notable New Orleans bassist named Slow Drag Pavageau who got his nickname from his dancing prowess.
The white folk are both exploiters, but it’s Tom Scott as Sturdyvant who is far and away the more cruel and noxious. His presence is so toxic that we can easily forget the looming clash between Ma and Levee. Scott always seems to be close to boiling over when he considers Ma’s sense of majesty and entitlement. Hank West as Irvin is the conciliator, but just when he verges on becoming sympathetic, a thin steely mean streak appears in a very nuanced portrayal.
No such subtlety beclouds Carol J. McKIenith’s wantonness as Dussie Mae, Ma’s companion. But there’s an interesting combination of meekness and determination, pride and shame, in Danius Jones’s portrayal of the stuttering Sylvester that makes him unexpectedly rewarding.
In another burst of unheard poetry, Wilson quotes blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson in his epigraph. Because “they tore the railroad down,” sings Jefferson, “the Sunshine Special can’t run.” Confronting this catastrophe, Jefferson plans to “build me a railroad of my own.” Ma and Levee have the same yearnings deep in their bones, to break away and blaze their own musical trails. But it’s still 1927, the traditional tracks are still sturdy, and their people don’t own them.