Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
June 22, 2012
Out in Hamilton Heights in the middle of the City College of New York, New Haarlem Arts Theatre is offering a sincere and affecting revival of August Wilson's 1982 masterpiece Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. For an audience unfamiliar with the play, it's a worthy introduction, an advisable priority. And even if you have seen the play performed before, the fine cast and brisk pacing ensure an emotional experience, even despite the play's few but significant flaws.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom takes its title from a popular song by the "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey, who serves as the central figure if not main character of the play. Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927 at a time when blues music had only begun to be commoditized but was soon to be replaced in the popular sphere by jazz, the setting is a romantic imagining of an archetypal period while being realistically mired in a claustrophobic world of limitations. You can read about the story here, but the story itself is simple and far less gripping than the characters and power dynamics. There's an upstairs/downstairs structure, as the accompanying band rehearses and waits for Ma in their basement band room until called upstairs to record, while Ma and her white manager and producer handle business in the studio. What's so fascinating is how the play so overwhelmingly about deferment and patience—when will Ma arrive? How long until we'll record her song? When will black trumpet player Levee get credit for penning a new hit?—still has such momentum. Circular conversations build on one another to constantly remind us that whatever power and prestige these musicians have in the studio is more than compensated for by the Jim Crow mentality they have to battle the second they're out the door.
Eugene Nesmith's direction is most effective in its handling of a long text. Though it might have served the play to slow it down occasionally, the generally brisk pace ensures that the play's messages are rarely too overstated, and instead emerge more profoundly not as considered meditations but as expressions of oppressed but dignified people. Much of this, of course, is due to a fine cast. The ostensible stars are Johnnie Mae as Ma Rainey and Reginald L. Wilson as Levee, but some of the most impressive work comes from the less ambitious characters, the band members who most mirror our experience of waiting for the big event to eventually come. When it does come, in a way nobody saw coming, their steady work makes the pay-off doubly affecting.
The show's biggest deficit is simply that the actors aren't musicians. The play is mostly concerned with the tragedy of American race relations, but its setting is the blues, and I couldn't stop wondering how much it would add to the rhythm and tone if they were consistently noodling throughout their wandering conversations. Even taking the limitation into account and excusing it as a trade-off for the excellent acting, the canned music that accompanies their playing is unfortunately distracting, at least Ma's lovely vocal accompaniment overshadows it.
In the end, it's an important American play, well-performed and sincerely rendered, an excellent choice for New Haarlem Arts Theatre and a worthwhile option for an audience.