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Chicago by John Olson

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Court Theatre

Also see John's review of Yeast Nation (the triumph of life) and Richard's review of Fake

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Greta Oglesby
This is the second of two back-to-back productions of August Wilson at Court Theatre, following their mounting of The Piano Lesson at the end of last season. The first of Wilson's "Century Cycle" to be produced on Broadway, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a pure example of socially conscious realism, and stands in contrast to the more humorous and fantastical Piano Lesson, which includes a ghost and an exorcism among its elements. I don't know if Wilson had already decided to create his cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century when he wrote Ma Rainey, but it serves the cycle well as an examination of African-American life in the twenties.

The setting is a recording session in Chicago circa 1927 in which the real-life "mother of the blues," Ma Rainey, is to record four numbers, including the eponymous title song. By the time of the story, the mass media of radio, recordings and films were well-established if still relatively new and had begun to offer talented and lucky African-Americans the opportunity to make a decent living. This play makes the case that white society, while willing to pay the performers for their entertainment, had no further regard for them beyond their profit potential. Though Ma Rainey herself is viewed by the recording studio owner of the play as quite the diva, she later explains to her backup musicians that her demands are simply an acknowledgement that her only power over these moguls ends as soon as they get her voice recorded.

Most of the scenes focus on her four backup musicians, three of whom—Slow Drag (A.C. Smith), Toledo (Alfred H. Wilson), and Cutler (Cedric Young)—appear to be in their fifties or sixties. The fourth is Levee, a young musician with big dreams (James T. Alfred). The older three seem generally at piece with their places in the world, making a modest but decent living at their art and doing what they must to get along with the whites. Levee plans on selling and performing his own songs. His greater ambitions put him at odds with his older colleagues, and his individuality in riffing on the session earns the wrath of Ma Rainey.

Director Ron OJ Parson's fine cast is led by Greta Oglesby as Ma Rainey and James T. Alfred as Levee. Oglesby is a powerful actress and singer; you never doubt Ma's authority or determination for a second. Whether she's haranguing her manager for his failure to bring her bottles of Coke to the session, insisting on casting her stuttering nephew to read an introductory line on the recording or threatening to fire Levee, you know she's not to be crossed, and Oglesby's vocals are easily strong enough to make you believe she's the legendary singer. James T. Alfred is equally powerful as the ambitious and angry Levee, the most thoroughly developed character in the play. While Levee is not particularly likable, we empathize with him and fear he may not fare as well in the white-dominated music business as Ma.

The supporting characters roles are all handled quite capably. Smith, Wilson and Young have warmth and an air of quiet resignation, though I had a little trouble seeing distinct characters between Wilson and Young as Toledo and Cutler. Stephen Spencer, as Ma's white manager Irvin, gives a nuanced performance that allows us to come to our own conclusions about his sincerity and dedication to Ma's interests over his own. Thomas J. Cox is an amusingly weasely Sturdyvant, owner of the recording studio. Kelvin Roston, Jr. is the sweet, stuttering nephew Sylvester and Kristy Johnson has good fun with her role as the young floozy Dussie Mae who accompanies Ma and Sylvester to the session and catches the eye of Levee.

Parson's steady direction—quiet when it needs to be and forceful at its peaks—is played out on John Culbert's intriguing and realistic three-level set encompassing the studio as well as its band room and reception area. Jacqueline Firkins' period costumes include dapper suits for the men and some spectacular flapper dresses for the women. The Court, which has promised us a steady diet of August Wilson over the coming years, has given us a top-rate production of this one of the writer's best-known plays.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom will be performed through October 18, 2009 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago. Tickets are available at the Box Office at 5535 S. Ellis, by phone at 773-753-4472 or online at www.CourtTheatre.com.  


Photo: Michael Brosilow    

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-- John Olson



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