Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom won the Tony Award for Best Play after it hit the boards on Broadway in 1984. And, in a wraith-like way, the revival of the uncut stage version presents a Job-like struggle for the soul of Black America: amidst the rise of profane jazz in 1927 and the decline of the blues, the spiritual song of the South. You could be forgiven for not picking up on any of that in last year's movie, which ran an anemic 94 minutes. This version goes the full distance, brimming with purpose and intent in every moment of its two hour and 40 minutes' runtime (including an intermission). And you can imagine, with those original 64 minutes back on display, how it paints a much richer picture, thanks to the relentlessly honest and naturalistic direction of Nada Vaughn.
It's also the only play in Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" (chronicling the lives of Black Americans in the 20th century, by the decades) that takes place outside of Pittsburgh. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in a recording studio in Chicago, even though Ma, herself, does not actually appear until about halfway through. Still, she's entirely worth the wait, as a consummate blues singer and seductress of the juke joint, played in ferocious diva mode by the splendid Maureen L. (Hughes) Williams. (The excellent costumes are by Jean Heckmann.) And while everyone's waiting for the superstar to arrive, we get the lay of the land, for musicians with sharecropper roots who go from gig to gig in a great northern city.
These performers mime their musicianship to a seamless playback over the loudspeaker system, and we quickly learn to accommodate this smooth legerdemain, because the actors holding the instruments are so commanding in their roles. (Gene Rauscher is the composer of the original music, as well as the adroit sound engineer who helps to make the fake seem real.) On stage, handsome Jeremy Thomas is outstanding as the young trumpet-playing upstart, Levee Green, whose jazz is dizzyingly ornate, but whose scribbled lyrics are filled with half-baked innuendo. He cleverly "fills the zone" with a lot of jazz, and all his efforts and spiritual anguish end in grotesque violence. He is philosophically opposed by wizardly Jonathan Garland as the aesthetic Toledo, a book-learned pianist who has painstakingly pieced together some great truths about the Black experience, before and after slavery. And Chris Moore and DeRod Jordan are excellent as session players who joyfully establish the status quo.
The 2020 film went a long way toward shortchanging all of these characters, whose painful introspections add up to bloody murder, and the symbolic death of racial memory and meaning in the end. On stage their ruminations create a flickering merry-go-round view of life in the Jim Crow South. And you can't achieve the same effect on film, by cutting an hour's worth of dialog from an August Wilson play.
Aaron Mermelstein and Mark Lull make a delightful passive-aggressive comic duo as the white guys, the former as an early-days record producer/engineer, the latter a harried and smiling agent for Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. They add surprising amounts of presence and energy to the proceedings. Calysta Yalew is somehow both winsome and sleazy as the stand-in for the fickle tastes of the record-buying public as Dussie Mae, belonging to the blues, but dallying wickedly in 1920s jazz. Aahron Young adds genuine fear and anguish to the role of Sylvester, Ma's nephew, forced to quietly humiliate himself again and again in the course of a recording session. And Bob Tierney is just as solid as the Chicago street cop.
For all this (the players' accumulated wisdom and artistry and patience and understanding), there is a mess of pottage that's paid in the end, right before a sense of history is suddenly snuffed out and a legacy stolen. For us in the present day, we are left wondering: what might have already been lost in the modern age, in just the past year; and how easily drawn away we are from piecing it all together again. Not to mention, we also wonder why we don't see highly seasoned Black performers like these on stage a lot more often here in St. Louis.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom runs through November 14, 2021, at Clayton Community Theatre, 6501 Clayton Rd. (across from the Esquire Theatre, in the Washington University South Campus building), Clayton MO. Masks and proof of vaccination are required, and there is an online wellness form to fill out in the entryway. For more information visit www.placeseveryone.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):