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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Theatre Review by Jonathan Frank

In 1984, playwright August Wilson burst on the Broadway scene with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the first in his cycle of ten plays designed to illustrate the African American experience decade by decade. Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, the play uses the chaos and pressures of the music business as a metaphor for the struggles of the African American to achieve equality, or indeed even find a voice, in the music industry in general and American society as a whole.

The action of the play takes place over the course of one recording session. Legendary 'mother of the blues,' Ma Rainey (Tamaela Aldrigde) is taking a break from touring to record a few songs for a recording company run by Sturdyvant (Ronald Rand), a white man with no patience for Ma's moods or demands, despite the vast sums of money she makes for him. While waiting for her to arrive, her band is relegated to the 'band room,' a dank basement hole of a junk room, to warm up and practice until she arrives. As these men have been playing with Ma for years and thus have no need for practicing, they joke, squabble and comment on issues that have become Wilson's trademarks: the power struggles between the old and new generation of African Americans, the attempt to better one's self (and the realization/desperation that one can only go so far given the societal strictures of the given era), the search for cultural identity, and most importantly, the anger that constantly simmers below the skin of an oppressed people; an anger that erupts unexpectedly when one's dreams get thwarted,

The play is essentially a series of escalating power struggles, largely by those who have little or no power themselves. The larger-than-life bisexual Ma is in a state of constant warfare with her world. Unable to catch a cab or stay in a 'white' hotel despite her legendary star status, she battles in the only arena in which she has power, the recording studio. Armed with the knowledge that her voice is the only bargaining chip she has, she uses every means at her disposal to get things done her way, running over any and all who impede her. This number includes Levee (Leopold Lowe), a hotheaded, impulsive trumpeter/songwriter who is itching to front his own band and bring Ma's music from its 'jugband' roots to the more swinging 20s. His quest to achieve some power from the white-controlled music industry, and his mistaken belief in level of power and influence within it, leads to his butting heads with the rest of the sidemen: Ma's right-hand man and leader of the musicians, Cutler (Allie Woods), the book smart and constantly pontificating Toledo (Henry Afro-Bradley), and the laid-back, aptly named Slow Drag (Charles Turner).

The actors, several of whom have appeared on Broadway, handle Wilson's legendary soliloquy-heavy style of writing with a deft understanding. Afro-Bradley is especially effective as Toledo, who's existential discussion of the African-American experience, especially in regards to what has been lost by trying to become a pale imitation of the white man, is as chilling as it is entertaining. As the driving force of the play, Lowe brings out all the complexity of Levee, a man of seething emotions who has been pushed down far too often throughout his life. His first act soliloquy, in which he describes witnessing his mother's rape when he was eight years old, is all the more impacting for seemingly coming out of nowhere, and Lowe handles the difficult transition with organic aplomb.

Director Arthur French, who was an understudy in the original Broadway production, has done a remarkable job of instilling the action with an undercurrent of barely perceived tensions and conflicts. The set design by Anne Lommel is simply stunning and rivals many a high-level regional or even Broadway set, providing as it does a visual illustration of the dichotomy between the black and the white worlds of the time, with the dank hellhole of a band room contrasting the sterile cleanliness of the studio.

Overall, this is an incredibly well realized production of one of Wilson's harder-hitting works and is worth every penny (and then some) of its ticket price.

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Classical Theater of Harlem
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Through October 27
HSA Theater, 645 St. Nicholas Avenue near 141st Street
Schedule and Tickets: SmartTix at (212) 206-1515