PicksInSix Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
“AN EMPTY WORLD WITHOUT THE BLUES”
Two seismic shifts create the drama in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” now playing in a stunning revival at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Director Ron OJ Parson masterfully allows one moment to erupt as if from thin air. The other comes on so ferociously that it will take your breath away as the startling summation of the power of Wilson’s driving narrative about discrimination and the unhinged rage from within that it fosters.
All of this occurs on a single afternoon in 1927 at a Paramount Records recording studio in Chicago. Ma Rainey (Felicia P. Fields) and her band–piano man Toledo (David Alan Anderson), guitarist Cutler (Alfred H. Wilson), bassist Slow Drag (A.C. Smith) and trumpeter Levee (Kelvin Roston Jr.)–along with her partner Dussie Mae (Tiffany Renee Johnson) and speech-impaired nephew Sylvester (Jalen Gilbert), are scheduled to meet with her manager Irvin (Peter Moore) and the studio owner Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox).
With Rainey’s arrival delayed, the band sets up in the rehearsal room. The men draw lines concerning who is in charge when Irwin selects Levee’s new arrangement of Rainey’s iconic “Black Bottom” for the recording session. It becomes clear that the ambitious Levee has been working a side deal with Sturdyvant for new material. Convinced that he will be fronting his own band before too long, Levee ends up squarely at odds with Toledo, while Cutler and Slow Drag choose to just get along. All that changes when the notoriously feisty Rainey arrives and refuses to sing until everyone sees things her way, right down to giving Sylvester multiple tries at announcing.
Rainey is a survivor in a business that has exploited her talent. Fields takes full advantage of the inherent power of the role and her interactions with Levee–and everyone else–who challenges her authority. What Levee says and does may well cost him the job, particularly if his intimate relations with Dussie Mae are revealed. Roston expertly navigates the deep-seated hostility and remorse of Levee’s youth with powerful conviction. The brilliant individual performances of Anderson, Wilson and Smith establish an immediate connection together, with the mounting tension that drives the men to a tragic breaking point spurred on by the greed and careless disregard of the men holding the purse strings, roles Moore and Cox skillfully deliver.
The studio setting, a gritty, ingenious Todd Rosenthal jewel, allows continuous, flow—inside-out and up-and-down—on three floors. Myrna Colley-Lee’s Roaring ’20s-era costumes glow under the rich hues of Jared Gooding’s lighting. Ray Nardelli’s sound mix is a key element in the superb music segments.
One of the many inspiring and uplifting messages of this stirring production is that it would be “an empty world without the blues.” When Fields proceeds to prove Ma’s point and dazzle us vocally in an electrifying performance, we are literally transported back to a moment in time when the oppressive racist attitudes against generations of African-American entertainers were momentarily stripped away and what was left, and which endures today, is Ma Rainey’s soaring musical legacy.