'Ma' loses some strength with tinkering

October 05, 1990|By J. Wynn Rousuck

With the noblest intentions, director L. Kenneth Richardson has added an African-style dancer to the cast of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the season opener at Center Stage.

Choreographed by Kathleen Sumler, Kevin Clopton appears in tribal makeup, and, without speaking, interprets various parts of the script in dance.

Apparently, Mr. Richardson is attempting to accentuate the mystical African elements that figure prominently in Mr. Wilson's more recent plays, particularly "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and "The Piano Lesson."

But "Ma Rainey" -- the first produced play in his ongoing cycle chronicling black life in 20th century America -- is essentially naturalistic. The use of the dancer seems tacked on and overstated. It makes a production full of powerful acting and emotions feel drawn out and precious and arty.

Actually "Ma Rainey" is more like blues music than a conventional, naturalistic drama. Themes and motifs -- particularly the theme of change -- weave in and out.

As Ma's band prepares to cut a record at a Chicago studio in 1927, each musician has a story to tell. Not only does the storytelling have an African resonance, but Ma's piano player makes repeated references to his African roots and tries to instill a sense of black nationalism in the others.

In other words, the African sensibility is built in, and, due to the style of the piece, it resurfaces frequently. Mr. Richardson should have put more trust in the text. And this is a tough, moving text, rippling with tension -- tension between North and South, black and white, young and old, and, most specifically, the blues and jazz.

Embodying the blues is Ma Rainey, portrayed with vocal and attitudinal majesty by Ebony Jo-Ann, who understudied and played the role in the 1984 Broadway production. From her red feathered hat to her satin shoes, she may look and act like a prima donna, but she's just doing whatever it takes to command respect.

The thorn in Ma's side -- even more than her white manager and studio head -- is Levee, her upstart trumpet player. Leland Gantt's interpretation is valid, but he emphasizes Levee's youth and inexperience more than his threat. Levee sees jazz as the music of the future; he represents change, but he wants it without learning the lessons of the past, and his impetuousness is dangerous.

All of the band members are praiseworthy -- Clebert Ford as the philosophizing piano player, Don Mayo as the easygoing bass player and Thomas Martell Brimm as the trombone player who acts as peacemaker.

A major source of contention in "Ma Rainey" is Levee's efforts to get the band to record his arrangement of the title song. Ma insists on her version. Center Stage's production is gripping, but it would have been more so if Mr. Richardson had relied on Mr. Wilson's version.

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Oct. 10 at 1 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Nov. 4.

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

Tickets: $8-$29.

Call: 332-0033.

** 1/2

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