by Lynn on May 15, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by August Wilson

Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Set and lighting by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Alexandra Lord

Music director and sound designer, Mike Ross

Cast: Derek Boyes

Alana Bridgewater

Beau Dixon

Neville Edwards

Lovell Adams-Gray

Virgilia Griffith

Diego Matamoros

Lindsay Owen Pierre

Alex Poch-Goldin

Marcel Stewart

August Wilson’s savvy, gripping play about the African-American musician’s experience in Chicago in 1927 and it’s about the beginning of the Blues. The production is bracing.

The Story. Background.  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was written in 1982 by Africa-American playwright, August Wilson. He had a daunting idea—to write plays that would document the African-American experience through every decade of the 20th century.

And he did it too.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in Chicago in 1927. It’s set in a recording studio and involves Ma Rainey—called the mother of the blues—her four piece band (all African-American), Irvin, her white manager and Mr. Sturdyvant, the white owner of the record company.

August Wilson usually wrote about African-Americans and how they dealt with each other, within families, relationships with other African Americans etc.  In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that is the focus but lurking in the background, always present, is how African-American’s are treated by white men in positions of power. In this case the two white men are Irvin Ma’s agent and Sturdyvant, the record company owner.

They all wait for Ma Rainey to arrive for the recording. Sturdyvant thinks she’s being difficult on purpose. Irvin sweats that Ma isn’t there and promises to take care of everything. When Ma Rainey arrives it’s with a police officer. She was in an accident with a cab. The officer can’t believe a black woman could own a car. After many stops and starts the session gets under way but there are issues all during the session.

The Production. Ken  MacKenzie has designed a three level set. The top level is the recording control booth. On the main level there is a stand up microphone  and a piano up at the back. This is where Ma Rainey will sing and record her songs. Down one level is where the four piece band of African-American musicians will rehearse while they wait for Ma Rainey to show up.

Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) arrive first. As Sturdyvant, Diego Matamoros is impatient waiting for Ma Rainey. He has endured what he considers her demanding antics and he’s fed up. As Irvin, Alex Poch-Goldin is nervous, twitchy and almost sweating with anxiety about where she is. He is her manager but Ma Rainey is the one in control. And she’s not there and he doesn’t know what to do but he promises Sturdyvant he will “take care of it.”

The band arrives from house right on the side of the audience, then they go on stage, across the first floor of the complex then downstairs to put their stuff in lockers and prepare to rehearse. They are Toledo (Beau Dixon), Slow Drag (Neville Edwards), Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray) and Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). They are all in suits and ties. Good shoes.

They banter, tease and trade good natured barbs initially. It’s noted that Levee has spent his whole pay on a flash pair of shows. Their lives and relationships slowly reveal themselves. Over the performance the allegiances will shift and change.

Levee is brash, confident and angry. He plays the trumpet and dreams of getting his own band and depends on Sturdyvant to record his songs. This is the flashiest part in the production and Lovell Adams-Gray plays Levee for all he’s worth. The smile beams, the body language is fluid and muscular. It is an impressive performance even if he starts at about level 10. There isn’t really anywhere to go after that. A bit more variation would be in order and the performance would still be impressive. I do laugh though when Adams-Gray first tries to play the trumpet—all he produces really is wind and a few hiccup sounds. He looks at the trumpet as if this miss-step is its fault. Subsequent efforts are more successful.

Toledo, the piano player, is the intellectual of the band, always reading, always putting things in perspective. He has Levee pegged as a blowhard and tries to take him down a peg or two. Beau Dixon is strapping as Toledo. He is also quietly intellectual and he is the best musician of the group. He commands the piano, playing as if the notes come naturally from his skin.

Cutler, the banjo-guitar-trombone player is the leader of the band and tries to keep the peace between the volatile Levee and the rest of the group. Lindsay Owen Pierre is all calmness and even temper as Cutler.  Slow Drag (Neville Edwards) on double bass is easy going and doesn’t really interfere. They all have opinions of each other. The dialogue zings through the air. The cast have the slang and the pacing of it down pat.

They all know how to act with their white boss and play the game. Cutler gets up off his chair whenever Sturdyvant comes in to the room; subservient as is Levee. It’s uncomfortable to watch.  That’s how they survive but a subservient smile does not mean they are.

When Ma Rainey (Alana Bridgewater) arrives, also house right along the side of the audience, she is furious and marching in with a purpose as the police (Derek Boyes), her nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) and her lover Dussie Mae (a flirty Virgilia Griffith who played up to both men and women) follow her trying to keep up.

Ma Rainey is nobody’s fool. Alana Bridgewater plays her without a drop of obsequiousness. This woman is beholden to no one. She does not bow and scrape. She stares down her adversaries and nails them. She knows her worth and makes everybody know it too.

Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu does achieve that sense of cohesiveness in the band, keeping the banter sharp and quick. These are guys who get by by their wits. She has some lovely touches. Sylvester, Ma’s nephew, has a stammer but she wants him to say something on her record. While he waits his turn, Marcel Stewart who plays Sylvester, squeezes his hat, turns it nervously in his hands and keeps his head down with his eyes up in a shy, insecure stance. But when he leaves he makes a point of shaking the hand of Sturdyvant (I believe). It is such a sweet, gracious moment for this shy character. The body language of he band with each other is easy and laid back; with Sturdyvant it’s formal, stiff and awkward. Tindyebwa Otu makes us watchful for a subtle reaction here and there and makes us look harder at what is happening between people. The ending leaves you winded

Comment.  And with all these relationships August Wilson paints a vivid picture of life for a black person in America in 1920s.  It’s not a simplistic idea of how the black man is kept down by the white man. It’s more complex. Wilson delves into the black person’s sense of self, his place in the word, the sense of his/her worth. His dialogue is intoxicating. He has recreated the rhythm and beat of black slang and the means of expression and it’s like listening to the tap dancing of masters.  Although I often think that August Wilson overwrote what he wanted to say in many of his plays including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  But the play and this splendid production pack such wallop of emotion you can forgive it.

Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Opened: May 10, 2018.

Closes: June 2, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes/


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