Before August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" went into rehearsals at Center Stage, Ebony Jo-Ann, who plays the title role, told the director: "I have always felt that I was put on this earth to play this woman."
It's a strong statement, but then, it comes from a strong woman. "My depiction is raw. Sometimes I frighten the other actors," says this strikingly stunning actress, who looks as if she were born with her hands on her hips.
Area audiences have seen Ms. Jo-Ann, 45, portray a variety of forceful characters in recent years. Two seasons ago she played the no-nonsense English teacher in "Fame: the Musical" at the Mechanic Theatre; the summer before that she played the double role of Louis Armstrong's mother and his fourth wife in "Satchmo" at the Kennedy Center; also in Washington, this past August, she completed a return engagement in a show she co-authored, "Sheila's Day," at Ford's Theatre. She will be seen in "Ma Rainey," the first play in Mr. Wilson's ongoing chronicle of black life in 20th century America, beginning Friday at Center Stage.
"When I say I was put on this earth to do this -- these stories must continue to be told, and they must be told with total honesty. You have to walk in their shoes in order to do these roles correctly. A lot of actresses want to be pretty, and they want to be loved, and you don't always have that comfort," she says.
Although looking pretty on stage may not matter to Ms. Jo-Ann, her interest in black female singers sprang indirectly from a childhood need to bolster her self-image. Having inherited a pronounced gap between her front teeth, she was subjected to a lot of teasing in school. "When I started to read, I read biographies, and the first one I read was Ethel Waters, because of the gap between her teeth," she says. "It gave me a sense of pride early on to realize it was a symbol of beauty in Africa and the Caribbean."
She went on to read biographies of other black female singers, but, she explains, "by the time I got to Billie Holiday I took a step back. All of their lives began to look repetitive in the sense that their lives were very hard. I said, 'I don't want to mirror this.' "
But Ms. Jo-Ann also has a more direct connection with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," a drama set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio where Ma Rainey and her band are making a record. In the early 1980s she auditioned for the first professional production, at Yale Repertory Theater. The part went to Theresa Merritt instead, but when the show moved to Broadway, Ms. Jo-Ann understudied the role, which she estimates she played 20 times during the nine-month run.
L. Kenneth Richardson, who is directing the Center Stage production, says Ms. Jo-Ann was the first actress who auditioned for him, and he knew immediately "that this was it."
Although he didn't see Ms. Jo-Ann portray Ma Rainey on Broadway, the audition convinced him that she had "the strength and the power" the character demands. "We call [Ma Rainey] the mother of the blues. There needs to be in this woman a tremendous sense of conviction, an awareness of who she is and where she comes from," he explains. "Ebony has all of these things innately."
In addition, he says, "She desperately wanted to do the role because she had only understudied it. . . . This is her time."
"Why do I feel so strong about her?" Ms. Jo-Ann asks rhetorically. "I guess it's because this story's not over, and if we smooth out the edges we're not telling the truth."
In the play, Ma Rainey is the recording studio's biggest money maker, but she has to fight for respect. Ms. Jo-Ann quotes two of Ma's typical tough-talking speeches: "If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley." Or, Ma Rainey's remark about her white manager: "He's been my manager for six years, always talking about sticking together, and the only time he had me in his house was to sing for some of his friends."
Then the actress pauses, and in her own words adds, "If you don't think that stuff still goes on -- it does."
But even though Ma Rainey is the title character and certainly has a lot to say about the treatment and perception of blacks, essentially her role is to provide a historical context for the action. The play "is not about Ma," Ms. Jo-Ann acknowledges. "The piece for me has always been about change." Literally, it is about the transition from the blues to jazz.
Change has been a continuing theme in Ms. Jo-Ann's life as well. Born Ebony Jo-Ann Johnson in Stamford, Conn., the daughter of domestic worker and a laborer, she began studying piano at age 5 and took up violin at 11. Then, when she was 15, her mother died, and Ms. Jo-Ann says, "I gave all of that up. I wanted to get closer to my roots. I chose the arts, but not the area [my mother] she wanted. She wanted me to be a concert pianist."