Arena puts `Ma Rainey' on stage


February 07, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

To August Wilson, the blues and playwriting are inextricably linked, and the play that best demonstrates that link is Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Wilson's first Broadway play, Ma Rainey (1984) isn't merely about a recording session with the legendary blues singer, it's full of blues-style riffs. Characters break into extended solos, motifs weave in and out, and it all blends into a melody that is variously comic, rueful, exuberant and tragic.

Also like the blues, the play needs performers who have the "chops," to borrow a bit of musicians' lingo. Arena Players' production could use an occasional boost in tempo, but director Amini Johari-Courts' cast has the dramatic chops. (As is customary with this play, however, the instrument-playing is mimed to a recorded track).

Although named for Ma Rainey (portrayed by Wynonia Rhock with imperious grandeur), the play is an ensemble piece. It focuses on Ma's band - three old-timers and a young upstart trumpet player. The schism between these factions is more than a generational conflict. It's philosophical, with Levee, the trumpet player, challenging the rest of the band about everything from music to religion and romance.

Unlike the other band members, who have made accommodations to get by, Levee is determined to get what he wants on his own terms. But in the 1920s (when the play takes place), the music business was run by whites, and it was an uphill battle even for a star of Ma Rainey's stature.

Portrayed by Sean Yoes as dashing, headstrong and blinded by anger, Levee is unwilling to follow the examples of his elders, and unable to constructively channel his anger. He's the antithesis of O'Bryant Kenner's Toledo, the band's soft-spoken, bookish pianist. Levee and Toledo spar from the start, and their set-tos are refereed by Archie D. Williams Jr. as the easygoing bass player, and Michael Kane as the peace-making trombone player.

Nearly two decades after this play's momentous debut, we recognize Levee as the first of many Wilson characters determined to play his own song his own way. Though that song doesn't come out the way Levee expects, at Arena its mournful melody lingers on.

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 24. Tickets cost $10. Call 410-728-6500.

No `Assassins' at Hopkins

Theatre Hopkins has decided not to close its current season with the Stephen Sondheim musical, Assassins. A planned Broadway production of the show about presidential assassins was postponed after Sept. 11, and Theatre Hopkins has chosen to follow suit. In its place, the community theater will present the Sondheim revue, Putting It Together.

Todd Pearthree, who was to direct Assassins and will now direct the revue, said the politically motivated decision was "basically, just good taste," and added: "We never really know what's going to transpire, and though it looks as if things are going to calm down, who knows what tomorrow may bring?" Putting It Together will run June 21-July 14 in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University. For information, call 410-516-7159.

More in tune with tradition

Starting with Wednesday's opening of Deb Filler's one-woman show, Filler Up, the Theatre Project is reinstating two former traditions. On opening nights of multi-week runs, the theater will once again pass the hat for donations in lieu of an admission charge. In addition, artist discounts are back in effect. Artists (and you know who you are) will now pay the same $10 rate as seniors and students. All other tickets remain $15. For information, call 410-752-8558.

Center Stage auction

This year, the Center Stage auction celebrates its 25th anniversary, and for the first time the event will be spread over two days - Saturday, March 2 (6 p.m.-11 p.m.) and Sunday, March 3 (8 a.m.-7 p.m.). The change was made to accommodate contractual commitments at WBAL radio (1090 AM), which broadcasts the live auction.

More than 600 items will be up for grabs, and Center Stage still is seeking donations ranging from the ordinary to the extraordinary. If you have something to donate, call Sydney Wilner, auction coordinator, at 410-685-3200, ext. 438.

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