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Theatre Review: Incendiary Take on American Pain and Appetites in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Short North Stage

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Incendiary Take on American Pain and Appetites in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Short North StageWilma Hatton (as Ma Rainey) sings the blues with her band, including Will Wilbert (center) and, left to right, Bryant Bentley as Levee, Chuck Timbers as Cutler and Ron Jenkins as Slow Drag in Short North Stage’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photo by Mark Clayton Southers.
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The August Wilson Festival is a much-deserved celebration of one of the greatest American playwrights and a rich experiment on a scale I’m not sure Columbus has previously attempted. It continues and kicks into overdrive with Wilson’s first play to be produced on Broadway, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which opened (after remarks from the playwright’s brother) at the Garden’s Green Room last night in a near-perfect production directed by Mark Clayton Southers.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom occupies an interesting place in Wilson’s 10 play cycle chronicling the black American experience throughout the 20th century. It’s the only play not set in Pittsburgh. It’s the only play centered around a real historical figure, legendary Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey, who recorded in the 1920s and ’30s including work with Georgia Tom Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, and Blind Blake, and therefore is more of a look at what success means on a greater (in the public eye) scale than the other work. And it’s a more direct look at what makes someone make art, a dive into the use of art as a way of making sense of the world. As the first of the cycle to break out on the national stage (a version of Jitney predates it but not the same version that later became part of the canon), it’s rawer than the later work, but it still packs an intense punch.

Wilma Hatton as Ma Rainey records the blues with Wilbert Williams as Toledo at the piano in Short North Stage’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photo by Mark Clayton Southers.

Wilma Hatton as Ma Rainey records the blues with Wilbert Williams as Toledo at the piano in Short North Stage’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photo by Mark Clayton Southers.

The play follows a recording session in Chicago in 1927, with Rainey at the top of her power and fame. The session is led by two whites, record company man Sturdyvant (Geoffrey C. Nelson) and manager Irvin (Jonathan Putnam). Ma’s backing band shows up first and most of the play centers on them. The two older veterans of the road are even-tempered but with no time for nonsense bandleader/trombonist/guitarist Cutler (Chuck Timbers) and thoughtful, if sometimes esoteric, pianist Toledo (Will Williams). Bassist Slow Drag (R. Lawrence Jenkins), is a ladies man and bon vivant who plays beautifully but wants to get the session done and out. Trumpeter Levee, Bryant Bentley, is a charmer with a taste for flash, endless ambition (he’s already talked to Sturdyvant about recording his own songs) and talent with an undercurrent of earned anger all born from terrible pain.

When Ma Rainey, played sumptuously by Wilma Hatton appears, in true star fashion an hour into both the session in the time of the play and the play as the audience is watching it, it’s like a whirlwind of light and heat entered the room. Rainey arrives, harassment by a police officer (Ryan Kopycinski) already in progress, with an entourage of her nephew Sylvester (Taylor Martin Moss) and her new girlfriend Dussie Mae (Rachel Bentley). It’s thrilling to watch a woman of that era who understands exactly how much talent she has, how hard she’s worked, how important she is to the operation and how important she should be, drawing her line in the sand even when the requests might seem petty (refusing to sing until a bottle of Coca-Cola is provided) or ridiculous (her nephew with a stuttering problem is going to do the spoken intro to the eponymous song). Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom understands how boring a recording session is, how much of it is spent sitting around with nothing to do but talk. In those moments, we see the personalities of the four men at the nucleus of the band get stripped down to the wire and harshly rub against one another on matters of faith, art, sex, and even what’s owed someone in this life. We also see, in the moment when the lights come back up and the band does one, perfect, shining take of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” how it can all be worth it, that those few moments, that “Taking up space,” as Rainey and Cutler discuss, can give someone the strength to keep going on.

Southers’ direction is jaw-dropping, taking the fascinating little set designed with perfect attention to period detail by Rob Kuhn (with assistance from Cheryl M. El-Walker’s costumes), and making it a three-dimensional slice of the world, effectively convincing the audience one half of the stage is below the other. For a long play full of speeches and whiplash turns of mood, Southers never lets the audience’s attention flag and he balances the mythic, poetic conception of the characters with their three-dimensional flesh and blood qualities.

Of course, all the direction in the world wouldn’t sell this fiery chamber-drama if the acting didn’t sell it, and this production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the best acting, pound for pound, as individual performances and the chemistry among them, I’ve seen on a stage in recent memory. Jenkins plays Slow Drag with the rhythms of the dance he’s named for, the heartbeat of the band, and the knowledge that a heart doesn’t keep beating without some work; in moments where his cool cracks, he breaks your heart, as on a desperate card trick and a few bars, accompanied only by his bass, of the gospel classic “Samson and Delilah.” Timbers’ Cutler and Williams’ Toledo have as real a brotherly rapport as you’re likely to see, forged in horrific fire but with enough age to want to keep living, eyes open. Timbers in particular is stunning when we finally see a snatch of his terrible, righteous anger. Moss’ Sylvester is a fascinating glimpse into the generational shift in jazz age America.

Bentley’s Levee is young enough to believe he can change the world with the fearlessness and the insanity of having seen hell first hand. It’s a virtuosic performance that pins you back to your seat. Hatton is a force of nature – intense, sexy, a portrait of the real possibility of transcendence and the difficulty of that transcending in the face of a rigged system. The way she and Levee deal with the first-hand knowledge someone has their hand on the wheel is a heartbreaking study in how thin the line is between soaring and crumbling.

It’s unlikely you’ll see a better production of this masterful play or any play. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of the cultural events of the year and required viewing for anyone who wants to be moved and stunned. This sets a high bar for the rest of the festival and the cultural calendar.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs through June 19th with performances at 8:00pm Thursday through Saturday and 2:00pm Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org

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