TWO OPPOSING generations of black musicians struggling to make it in a white racist society and the trashing of one man's personal dignity form the crux of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," playwright August Wilson's first of five works chronicling the wretchedness and rich humor of the black experience in America.
A well-staged but slow-paced version of the play opened last night in the downstairs theater at Center Stage, newly named The Pearlstone Theater.
"Ma Rainey" debuted on Broadway in 1984 and was awarded the New York Critics' Circle Award. Two of Wilson's subsequent plays, "Fences" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," received the same award with "Fences" garnering the Pulitzer Prize. Another Pulitzer went to Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," which opened on Broadway in April.
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (the name of a song made famous by the real-life "Mother of the Blues," Gertrude Pridgett Rainey) deals with the white exploitation of black artists in the late '20s as they express their pain and rage in the noble sound of "black honey music," called the "blues."
Devastating as this work is, it is also very funny and sensual. Thoughtfully directed by Kenneth Richardson, who also directed the Center Stage production of "The Colored Museum," the fine performing ensemble presents a fluid symphony of movement and easy talking spiked with sudden savagery.
The performance, however, ran late due to the director's low-key approach and slack timing. The script ambles along comfortably -- perhaps too much so -- until the very end when an act of senseless violence spawned by bitter disillusionment destroys forever one man's dream of making it in the white world.
The story takes place in a rundown recording studio in Chicago. Four black backup musicians and two white men are waiting an interminably long time for the great blues singer, Ma Rainey, to show up for a recording session.
Ma is really a peripheral character, a metaphor of the times. In her absence, the musicians endure the long wait engaging in petty arguments, political philosophies, African pride, mournful life stories and parables which reveal their histories and personalities.
The figure of an African spirit dancer (Kevin Clopton) gracefully enacts the four's solo moments with haunting symbolism, although sometimes he seems to dance too much in shadows.
Sturdyvant, the studio head and unscrupulous user of black talent (played with shrewd, greedy calculation by Richard Dix), warns Irvin, Ma's manager (played with slick compliance by Stephen Singer), to keep the singer in line.
A big money-maker for the studio, Ma has no illusions about the white man's respect for her person and Ebony Jo-Ann plays the high-powered imperious star to the hilt. Making a flashy grand entrance, she brings with her a sleek, young female lover (amusingly played by Betty K. Bynum) and a stammering nephew (Michael Eaddy), whom she insists on using in the recording.
When Jo-Ann, who performed the title role on Broadway, finally sings the title song, her excellent style and throaty warble embodies the blues style of the period.
The four musicians really play. Thomas Martell Brimm excels as Cutler, the trombonist, playing the character with a soft-spoken weariness edged with a sly, cutting humor. Toledo, the piano player and black political advocate, is played with endearing earnestness by Clebert Ford. Don Mayo is a likable, easygoing Slow Drag, the string bass player, who, like the other two, hides his pain beneath the laughter.
Levee is the catalyst, the trumpet player determined to make it in the white man's world. Uptight and hostile, arrogant and talented, always challenging, he defies Ma and blues tradition.
Leland Gantt is Levee and he projects the necessary anger of the character but tends to blast his lines on one level with little contrast or change. We do not see the soul of this man enough, the deep fear and self-loathing as he poignantly talks about his personal tragedy, the rape of his mother by white men.
The climax of the play is powerful, if somewhat contrived, making its point and the performances excellent all around. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" continues at Center Stage through Nov. 4.