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MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM by August Wilson showcases Robeson Theatre’s depth of talent.

THE BASICS: MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, a Tony Award winning play by August Wilson, directed by Willie Judson Jr., runs through December 24, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 4 at the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue (884-2013). Runtime: Two and half hours with one intermission. Fresh popcorn, candy, water, and sweet ice tea available.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  It’s Chicago 1927 and the “Black Bottom” dance is a phenomenon that has crossed over from black to white culture. To capitalize on this flapper craze a recording studio has contracted with one of their stars, Ma Rainey – “The Mother of the Blues” – to record her version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” As the play opens we meet the band: the older guys Cutler (trombone), Toledo (piano), and Slow Drag (double bass), and young hot-tempered Levee (trumpet). As they wait for Ma to arrive they talk, argue, and philosophize on life. When Ma Rainey and her entourage arrive late, producer Sturdyvant and Ma’s agent Irvin (both white) have, shall we say, elevated blood pressures. Ma plays the diva, ultimately insisting that her nephew Sylvester speak the song’s introduction even though he stutters. Then the recording equipment fails. Now tempers are really on edge. While waiting for a new microphone cord, Levee, who has hopes of starting his own band, reveals a horrendous story about his youth and then, as the play progresses, Levee is told that the band won’t play his more modern version of the “Black Bottom,” that he can’t go out with the beautiful woman who is with Ma, that he can’t even own the rights to his own songs, and finally that Ma wants him out of the band. He explodes.

THE PLAY: MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM was the first of the ten plays by American playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) now known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle” (all the other plays written after this were set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where the playwright grew up). The ten are also known as the “Century Cycle” (since each play is set in a different decade of the twentieth century). While MA is set in the 1920s, later Wilson went back and wrote GEM OF THE OCEAN to cover the 1900s and JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE which was set in the 1910s. Today, August Wilson’s most well-known play might by FENCES (set in the 1950s) since it’s recently been a major motion picture release starring Denzel Washington. JITNEY (set in the 1970s) was also produced last season in Buffalo by The Paul Robeson Theatre, which, I understand, is the oldest continually producing theatrical company in Buffalo.

“Since 1958, the African-American Cultural Center, Inc. has enabled spirits to soar and offered sanctuary, validation and celebration for the duality of being African and American” reads the AACC’s Mission Statement which continues “…the African-American Cultural Center stands firmly committed to promoting a positive sense of self among the community it was founded to serve. Its programs and services are still structured to motivate personal growth, stimulate untapped potential and facilitate a better understanding of cultural diversity among all people.”

So, while the primary audience for AACC programs is obviously African-American, all people are very welcome at 350 Masten Avenue to facilitate their own better understanding of cultural diversity.

‘I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans.’

In Wilson’s N.Y. Times obituary, he is quoted as telling the Paris Review: “I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans. For instance, in ‘Fences’ they see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things – love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”

THE PRODUCTION: To paraphrase from the old TV show “The A-Team” – I love it when a [play] comes together. Where to begin? Well, let’s start with what you see when you first enter the Paul Robeson Theatre, and that’s another stunning, gritty, realistic set by Harlan Penn, who once again came up from New York to personally design and help construct a recording studio, with four doors for multiple entrances and exits, all on the relatively small stage. The man has the touch.

Then, add the thoughtful director Willie W. Judson, Jr. who told me at intermission that one of the biggest challenges when directing an August Wilson play is the massive amount of dialog and the danger of losing the sense of easy conversation under the sheer weight of words. If that’s a potential problem, you won’t notice that here. During the second act I tried to listen for it. Nah. It all sounded like real people in real conversations.

THE PLAYERS: Besides a great set and a reflective director, the play features a number of very accomplished actors: Sandra Gilliam as Ma Rainey, Roosevelt Tidwell as Levee, Leon Copeland as Cutler, Tuhran Gethers as Toledo, Al Garrison as Slow Drag, Ricky Needham as Irvin, Sean Farrell as Sturdyvant, Rachel Henderson as Dussie Mae, the object of desire, Marcus Thompson Jr. as the stuttering Sylvester, and, in a brief scene, Dan Greer as Policeman.

When we talk about August Wilson, we talk about decades. Well, there are decades of experience on stage, and it’s appreciated. Everyone plays his or her part wonderfully, but without a doubt, Al Garrison, as Slow Drag, felt the most natural and added the gravitas necessary to anchor the other very strong actor, Roosevelt Tidwell, III, who has the power to play Levee, allowing him to be not just another hot-headed young man, but someone with a story to tell. And perhaps the most complicated character on stage, a black woman dealing in a white businessman’s world, was played with laser like focus by Sandra Gilliam in the title role.

WHAT’S NEXT: SKELETON CREW, the third of Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit Trilogy. “At the start of the Great Recession, one of the last auto stamping plants in Detroit is on shaky ground. Each of the workers has to make choices on how to move forward if their plant goes under.” It will run January 19 through February 11, 2018.

Lead image: Sketch by Harlan Penn

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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