Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Set in a shabby Chicago recording studio, circa 1927, the better part of the first act of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom keeps the audience waiting to meet Ma herself, while introducing us to her band (and the dynamics of their relationships with each other), and a pair of white men: Sturdyvant, the impatient recording studio owner, and Irwin, Ma's harried manager. When Ma arrives with her stuttering nephew Sylvester and her sassy young confidante and lover Dussie Mae, the tempo of the piece picks up, as Ma's insistence that her speech-challenged nephew be allowed to do the intro to her famous "Black Bottom" number on the recording. When a satisfying take is finally, though triumphantly, achieved, a miking problem further sets back the forward thrust of the already lengthy session and allows the ambitious, volatile trumpet player Levee to attempt a seduction of a rather willing Dussie Mae and pick a fight with a fellow musician. The downbeat climax focuses on Levee's anger and frustration over Sturdyvant's broken promises to let Levee record his own music.
Having never seen Ma Rainey's Black Bottom before, I was startled by how little the titular character is actually onstage. However, the very qualified Cynthia Jones has the acting chops and vocal prowess to create a compelling portrait of a black artist struggling for respect and power in an era when few women, black or white, got either. But, with playwright August Wilson keeping Ma in the periphery so much of the time, it falls to director Jonathan Wilson to keep us engaged in the dynamics of the band musicians, and he does not pull this off.
Individually, the actors do some fine work. Wendell W. Wright is understated and moving as guitarist, trombonist and bandleader Cutler, then crackling in a confrontation with Alvin Keith's Levee; Don Mayo as pianist Toledo pitches his performance at the right level; and Chic Street Man is a laid back charmer as the bassist, Slow Drag. As Levee, Alvin Keith is clearly a gifted, dynamic performer who needs to be directed to give a more varied, less grating account of the play's most complex character. Whether it was a directorial choice, or an inability of the actors to convincingly play the music, either way it diminishes the authenticity of the play.
Reginald André Jackson is utterly winning as the unfortunate Sylvester, and earns the entire audience's affection when Sylvester finally gets his intro out without stuttering. Charlie Parker is most appropriately cast as Dussie Mae, conveying a sort of sultry, Eve Harrington-like adulation of Ma that makes her something of a threat to the veteran star. Laurence Ballard plays Ma's benighted manager with a good mixture of frustration and pent up disgust, and Charles Leggett is appropriately boorish as Sturdyvant.
Scott Bradley's scenic design neatly separates the actual recording studio from the bandplayers' waiting area and has the right dilapidated look, accented effectively by Allen Lee Hughes' lighting, and Linda Ross' costumes capture the period and serve the actors well, save for an unflattering flapper dress for Dussie Mae.
In August Wilson's cycle of plays examining the lives of 20th century African Americans, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom probably rests comfortably in the middle range of his best written works (I would put Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson ahead of it, for certain). Nonetheless, the shortcomings of the Seattle Rep production keep the piece from being all it should be.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom runs through February 19, 2005 at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright stage, 155 Mercer Street in Seattle Center. For more information visit their web-site at www.seattlerep.org.