Right from the start of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, you get the feeling that Ma Rainey is worth waiting for. Her band and manager have gathered at a producer’s place in Chicago to record. Everyone is there but her, just sitting around. Talking. Complaining. Verbally sparring. Speculating about her whereabouts. Ma is very late.
Rainey, played by a shimmering Javetta Steele, finally arrives, fresh from an encounter with a blackmailing police officer. That’s the bad news, but a perfect entrée into the main dramatic undercurrent of societal racism and the musicians’ fight for respect. The good news, for the audience at least, is that Rainey is finally here, and she’s a fabulous show all by herself.
|ma rainey’s black bottom, presented at the guthrie theater through march 6. for tickets ($24-$60) and information, see guthrietheater.org.|
Rainey is all glitter and glamour and presence. She has one of those voices—booming, breathy, strong, severe, mean, quick, enlightening. She can do anything with that voice. Ma saves us from these men who have commandeered the stage—all of them talented performers and singers, but until she arrives, none of them working with much material. Thank. God. For. Ma.
In this production by the Penumbra Theatre Company, presented in partnership with the Guthrie, this bottom-heavy August Wilson play is well-acted and directed by Lou Bellamy, who never allows Ma’s tardiness to stall the dramatic cogs of the production. While we wait for Rainey we’re treated to the bickering of the band, most notably Abdul Salaam El Razzac, who plays Toledo, the knowing elder leader of the troupe. His main counterpart is the optimistic Levee, played by a fiery and flashy James T. Alfred. Both men do a remarkable job of raising the tension in the room, all while dosing the situation in good humor—at least in the beginning.
At times, the bickering of the band does go on a bit too long—and this begins to really affect the viewer. There is an ever-present feeling that all of this is going to boil over—that these conversations about women and race and religion are more than just jabs at one another—there these men have more at stake.
The set, by scenic designer Vicki Smith, is a drab and defunct-looking recording studio, complete with hissing radiators and an elevated booth where Rainey’s manager and producer are kept, high above the performers. They look down on Rainey and her musicians, standing as far away as they can get, giving them orders from behind glass. In this way, the setting works nicely as symbolism—the white producer and manager want what Rainey and her musicians can give them artistically, but they keep their distance from them in every other respect. At one point Rainey declares that white men can hear her bluesy tunes come out, but they don’t know how the music got there.
If you’re going to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and expecting to hear some amazing singing—especially from Ma—you’ll get that. But what stands out most at the end of the production is not just the incredible ability of Rainey, but instead her disheartening struggle for respect. You can’t help but feel beaten at the end of this production, and if the play is trying to tell you anything about the insurmountable fight for respect, it’s that it involves a lot of waiting.