August Wilson is the undisputed master of interpreting for the stage the African-American experience of the 20th century, and Arizona Theatre Company's current offering, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, powerfully bears this out.
Ma Rainey is part of the August Wilson Century Cycle—10 plays, each based in a different decade last century. Ma Rainey is set in the 1920s, more than a half-century after slavery was officially outlawed, although attitudes and practices still exploited and demeaned an entire race.
There was an actual Ma Rainey, but Wilson only uses her notoriety—she was referred to as the "Mother of the Blues"—as the starting point of his fictional story.
It's 1927 in Chicago, a city to which thousands of Southern blacks had migrated, hoping for greater opportunities and better lives. In a run-down, low-budget recording studio, members of Ma Rainey's band have gathered to prepare for a recording session. Trombonist Cutler (James Craven) and bassist Slow Drag (William John Hall Jr.) are laid back, grateful for their work and unable to imagine any life for themselves other than the one they have found within what is unequivocally still the white man's world.
Toledo (Abdul Salaam El Razzac), the piano player, is older, quite literate and a bit aloof, but incisive in his observations, especially when young trumpeter Levee (James T. Alfred) joins the group. Clad in a suit cut from cloth so loud that it could be heard in Memphis, and carrying a box of new shoes for which he has traded a week's wages, Levee is full of ambition, confidence and himself. He has composed a new intro to the song "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"—"black bottom" refers to a dance—and says he will insist that his is the version which will be recorded. Knowing Ma Rainey as they do, the others laugh at his boasts, but he laughs back at them: If he's denied, he will create his own band and write his own songs. His is a new vision for music, he says, and his mastery of it ensures him a place of importance and respect in a changing world.
But Levee can't even spell "music." In a poignant and penetrating moment, Toledo bets Levee a dollar that he can't spell the word. Levee takes the bet, but he spells "m-u-s-i-q." Bookworm Toledo knows Levee is wrong, but refuses to take Levee's money, because neither Cutler nor Slow Drag can confirm that Toledo's spelling is the correct one. And so is established the central conflict of Wilson's story: Dreams of a new order clash with the entrenchmentof the old.
ATC's production—actually a co-production with Penumbra Theatre Company of St. Paul, Minn.—is passionate though imperfect. The cast is solid; Wilson's thoughtfulness, eloquence and humor are delivered; and the feel of the era is communicated beautifully in the production's design elements.
But the first act drags. These musicians know each other, and their banter should be easy and fluid. It's not. Even Levee's energy can't lift the lethargy which seems to hold the others captive.
But when Ma Rainey, played by a magnificent Jevetta Steele, enters with her entourage, the production's engines rev. With her colorful feathered coat and sparkling turquoise dress, she infuses the dreary studio with life, energy and a don't-mess-with-me imperiousness. But even she seems to know that her power lies less in her musical gift than in her ability to withhold it from those who are positioned to make big bucks with her talent.
Wilson's themes are hefty, and he employs a unique style, in which rather straightforward playmaking is punctuated by moments when characters launch into beautifully crafted soliloquy-like speeches (even though other characters are present and a part of the conversation). These are rather like a jazz musician's improvised riff, and they require a similar sensitivity of timing, emphasis and placement within the whole. Director Lou Bellamy—probably the most informed and sensitive director of Wilson's work because of his longtime friendship and collaboration with Wilson—has helped this capable cast find all the pieces of Wilson's powerful story. But the production still seems a bit dense and self-conscious. Perhaps it simply had not yet found its most effective storytelling rhythm at the opening-night performance.
That doesn't mean that the production is limp and ineffectual. Alfred's Levee, with his dreams and bravado, is the fiercely beating heart of the story, and we watch with both empathy and horror as he explodes with rage when his bandmates charge that he is "spooked by the white man," just as they all have been. He reveals with murderous intensity how he witnessed the gang-rape of his mother, and how his father thoughtfully planned revenge. He bares his own scars, literally and figuratively, and curses God, refuting the power of any man or force to derail his self-declared destiny. But as the recording session ends, and he is dealt another humiliation, his destiny in a new world unravels tragically. How can one escape the denigration and humiliation of one world if the new one is still characterized by powerlessness and a lack of self-determination? The rage that results will always be self-destructive.
In 1985, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play, and also received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. Wilson also won two Pulitzer Prizes, for Fences in 1987, and The Piano Lesson in 1990. He died in October 2005, three months after revealing he had liver cancer. He was 60.
ATC's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom admirably represents Wilson and his insight, eloquence and emotional energy. Its harsh but honest rendering of one of our most troubling social issues disturbs, moves and, ultimately, enlivens.