Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson. Directed by Marion McClinton. Musical direction by Dwight Andrews. Scenic design by David Gallo. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Rob Milburn. Sound design by Michael Bodeen. Fight direction by David S. Leong. Cast: Charles S. Dutton, Whoopi Goldberg. With Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Tony Cucci, Jack Davidson, Carl Gordon, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Anthony Mackie, Heather Alicia Simms, and Louis Zorich.
It's often said that, once you learn some things, you never forget them. When Charles S. Dutton bursts onstage as Levee, the role he created in the original 1984 production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, his confident smile and swagger leaves you every reason to believe that will be the case here as well.
It's that rock hard self-assuredness that almost proves the undoing of the revival of August Wilson's drama at the Royale Theatre. The role of the black trumpet player who supports the great blues star, yet yearns to make a name for himself with a new kind of music, is second nature to Dutton; yet his carefully defined performance belies what becomes, almost immediately, an overly familiar portrayal.
He takes few risks and raises fewer roofs, and while some of his scenes (primarily his monologues where he recounts a vicious attack against his mother or excoriates God) suggest he's never played them better, parts of his performance feel forced and uneasy. Sometimes it's as though he's trying to recall on the spot what worked like gangbusters twenty years before, other times he seems even more lost. Despite his endless energy and ingratiating manner, Dutton currently proves too weak a backbone for the story this time around.
Yet Levee must be exactly that. He, not the blues queen Ma Rainey of the title, is the main focus of the piece. He sees the power Ma (Whoopi Goldberg) can exert over her white manager (Jack Davidson) or record producer (Louis Zorich) and longs to have that for himself, and is sure he can once he breaks away from Goldberg's backup band and can demonstrate his contribution to the "new sound." But his misinterpretation of Ma's success and his own overly-lofty ambition put him at odds with the other members of Rainey's band, who have very different approaches and opinions. Toledo (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) is the philosophical appeaser representative of the attitude Levee despises, Cutler (Carl Gordon) simply defers to whoever is in charge, and Slow Drag (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is generally happy to go with the flow.
Much of the play's atmospheric richness lies in the intricacies of the bandmates' interactions with each other, the cautious familiarity with which they regard each other. Trust is placed and rescinded, all attitudes and words questioned, and allegiances forged and broken. Wilson's writing for the band members is some of his strongest and most vibrant, funny yet relevant. That the four actors are completely at home in their roles and relationships makes these moments all the stronger.
Levee's relationship with Ma Rainey is vital as well, though secondary. She's almost a figurehead, albeit a vital one; Levee's ideal in human form. Yet Goldberg's portrayal never successfully demonstrates what so intoxicates Levee beyond the textual level. Goldberg's familiar voice and expert timing never threaten to make Ma recede in the background, but nor does she ever truly command the spotlight. Missing from Goldberg's Rainey is the domineering authority that makes her control over others, black or white, a foregone conclusion. Here, it works only because the script, not Goldberg, demands it must. While she seems most at home in the songs, the role cries out for both a bigger voice and personality than Goldberg is capable of providing.
Still, there's little fault to be found in the rest of the production. David Gallo has created another fine set, a solid (if unexceptional) all backstage area divided into two open areas allowing simultaneous action in two locations. Donald Holder's lighting is fine, and Toni-Leslie James's slick, characterful costumes (Goldberg's sequined dress is equal parts comic absurdity and highbrow attractiveness) help set the 1927 tone with eye-catching precision.
The other actors, too, are fine, with Gordon and Byrd particularly giving perfectly judged performances as Levee's ideological opponents. Anthony Mackie plays Ma's stuttering nephew Sylvester with a beguiling humor that point up his failures, and eventual successes, with humanity. Ma's tag-along girl is played by Heather Alicia Simms who always seems a bit uncomfortable in her clothes and personality.
For all that's good, though, there's an unsettling undercurrent of complacency that mutes the electricity Ma Rainey's Black Bottom can generate. Marion McClinton's direction is smooth and snappy in its pacing, moving with music-like precision, but fails to set up the bigger moments that truly define the play. Levee's shoes, which figure in prominently to the plot, don't seem important. The songs into which Levee has poured his soul come across as props. And so on.
But while McClinton should have caught these problems and made adjustments, who could blame him for trusting Dutton, whose understanding of the play is probably secondary only to Wilson himself? Like Levee's shoes, much of this production has been invested in Dutton, and he never quite returns on the investment. While additional time may allow Dutton to find his stride in the role again, Wilson's voice, like the sound from Levee's trumpet, currently is muted.