Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Mark Taper Forum
Review by Terry Morgan

Also see Bill's review of All the Way

Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton,
Keith David, and Lillias White

Photo by Craig Schwartz
As far as August Wilson's theatrical career was concerned, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was the play that got it all started, although technically it comes second in his ten plays for ten decades series. One can see why it was a success: The show is funny, full of compelling characters, music and deeply felt drama. The current production at the Mark Taper Forum is superb, a sparkling dramatic entertainment with a top-notch cast who are clearly enjoying themselves.

In 1927 Chicago, a band has gathered in a recording studio to await their singer and boss, Ma Rainey (Lillias White). Bass player Slow Drag (Keith David) hopes she'll show up soon so they can record and get it over with, whereas piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman) is happy to share his philosophies with everyone. Cutler (Damon Gupton), the band leader, just wants the band to rehearse, but trumpet player Levee (Jason Dirden) is more interested in starting his own band. When one of these men's hopes is dashed, tragedy steps in for a solo.

White is appropriately imperious as Rainey, hilarious as she gives Levee an epic example of stink-eye as she passes him. David is slyly amusing as Slow Drag, particularly memorable in a monologue in which he recounts the tale of a man selling his soul to the devil and another where he gets expressively upset about not getting pot from a friend. Turman is terrific as Toledo, endlessly lecturing the "ignint" Levee, connecting the play with the larger African-American experience. Dirden steals the show as Levee, the talented but arrogant and hotheaded horn player for whom change cannot come fast enough, and Gupton is fine as the even-tempered Cutler.

Director Phylicia Rashad gets excellent work from her ensemble, which not only needs to act but also plays musical instruments. John Iacovelli's bi-level studio set feels accurate, and Emilio Sosa's costumes bring the 1920s era to life. Steven Bargonetti's music direction makes the band seem real and swinging, to boot.

I highly recommend this production, one of the best productions of August Wilson I've had the pleasure to see.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom plays at the Mark Taper Forum through October 16, 2016. Tickets and information are available at

Center Theatre Group presents Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson. Directed by Phylicia Rashad. Lighting Designer, Elizabeth Harper; Scenic Designer, John Iacovelli; Costume Designer, Emilio Sosa; Sound Designer, Dan Moses Schreier; Production Stage Manager, David Blackwell.

Sturdyvant : Matthew Henerson
Irvin: Ed Swidey
Cutler Damon Gupton
Toledo Glynn Turman
Slow Drag: Keith David
Levee: Jason Dirden
Ma Rainey: Lillias White
Dussie Mae: Nija Okoro
Sylvester: Lamar Richardson
Policeman : Greg Bryan

Photo by Craig Schwartz

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