The Beverly Hills Outlook

A Biweekly Review of the Arts and Culture in Southern California

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
By August Wilson, Directed by Claude Purdy, at The Lillian Theater, Through March 7

August Wilson’s powerful play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about many things taking place in 1927 in America.  Set in Chicago at a recording session of the outrageous bisexual singing phenom and “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, the play juxtaposes birth and death in nearly every scene.  Like an auditory pentimento, the birth of Jazz is heard coming through the last dying off notes of The Blues.  The birth of racial consciousness is foreshadowed through the rape, revenge and death of a musician’s parents.  A scuff on a new pair of shoes begets a fatal knife thrust through the gut of a pal.  A scene that took my breath away.

This roaring twenties is not about the roar of the expanding outside world, it is about a specific imploding world and the roar inside the heads of Ma Rainey and her Band as they experience it happening.  With the mastery of a great symphony, Wilson’s play expertly places the tension, violence, laughter and sex in Rainey’s world in recurring patterns with increasing intensity and development throughout the piece until the world can’t hold it, and it disintegrates after the inevitable explosion.

As the dominating Ma Rainey, Loretta Devine rules the stage like a huge Tasmanian Devil.  She enters straight from a car crash, hurling invectives and dogged by a cop who wants a payoff to let her go.  Through all the ruffled feathers of her entourage - her young girlfriend lover, her stuttering nephew, her manager who must pay - the metaphor of her crash lingers and hovers over the rest of the night.  Wearing fire engine red from head to toe under her fur coat and careening around the stage, she is the one defiant color in the entire carefully designed depression era production. Make no mistake that her voice is also the one important defiant sound here as well. She is the cash cow of her white producer’s record company and she screams and hollers lest no one forget it for even a second.  Devine is hilarious, catching every sneaky move her manager and producer try to put over on her and rounding on them getting in her own licks.  With her furious will and impossible demands, she puts up with nothing, while she attempts to keep everything revolving tightly around HER.

The set contains the recording studio, a decrepit under-heated study, in browns, on the main level that Devine dominates, and the termite-ridden downstairs rehearsal room that is the domain and gladiator arena for the ‘boys.’  The interior life of the play happens down here when the four musicians gather to rehearse for Ma’s recording.  Because they embody every tension imaginable among mankind ­ age, education, poverty, experience, beliefs, color wardrobe, vocabulary - not much rehearsing ever gets done.  This dysfunctional group, in turn, roast, argue, entertain, coerce, humor, shame, threaten, and finally stab one another in heartbreaking crashes all over the night.

Driving the action of the play is the young and voracious jazz trumpeter Levee.  Levee is ravenous for his life, his future, his music, his place, his own band, his survival.  (Five sandwiches are served; he grabs three).  His ambition and antagonism are fueled by working a side deal with Sturtevant, Ma’s producer, who promised him his own band to play his new jazz instead of the ‘jug’ music he disdains and must record.  He needs to eclipse the past and these musicians he is with.  They are leftovers, remnants with no future and no purpose just like the set.  HE as the fittest, has just bought new shoes, twelve dollar Florsheims, assurances of his success to come, that he will wear as he steps out into his future.  He needs this desperately, and he puts his new shoes on right away. We see just how desperately he needs to be effective when he spits out his boyhood experience of his mother’s rape and his father’s hanging.  He is furious, he wants to stab God.  He wants his time to come to him now.

As Levee, Russell Andrews is riveting.  He plays the young man soon to be on top of the world, but we see the slippage that is going to happen when he loses a bet and can’t spell the word “music.”  Musik, just that one word, and we know it will never happen for him. All brag and loins, Russell plays at controlling these burning emotions at the same time he lets us see, bit by bit, that they have the real control of him.

Tempering him, provoking him, humiliating him, and cajoling him, are the other musicians.  Toledo, the pianist who has by far the most education, Cutler, the nuanced elder of the group, and Slow Drag, the charm and warmth of the group, keep trying to make the rehearsal with Levee work, while unknowingly setting off bigger and bigger depth charges in him and moving closer to tragedy.  This ensemble work is masterful, deft, and astonishing.  I loved these men.  The writing has given them the symphony, and they play it like the virtuosos they are.

Wilson also plays us with his craft, when we just cannot take one more painful truth downstairs, he bounces us right back upstairs to Ma in her bright reds having a stubborn and hilarious argument with her cheap producer over her missing Coca-Cola.  Ma has a roundhouse right.  When the coke gets produced, she finally sings and pours onto us the whole quenching experience of her voice and her music.  This is our relief; we earned it. “C.C.Rider” and “Show Me Your Black Bottom.”  This writing, like the coke, completely satisfies before we head back downstairs.

As the white producer Sturtevant, Joseph Ruskin is smarmy and condescending to the “boys.”  We watch Ma bust him on everything and love her for it, but we also see the men stuck in their roles as supplicants to him.  When he comes down to pay them their twenty five dollars for the all day session that we know will earn him big money, (“Thank you, SUH.”), he unwittingly detonates the big trip cord in Levee by turning down his music as “not the right stuff.”  Levee snaps.  His whole reality was shored up by this promise, now broken to his face, in front of those he has shown nothing but antagonism, superiority and rage.

Levee brings out his knife as the door closes after Sturtevant.  He is barely in control, he can’t stab God for the rape, he can’t stab Sturtevant for his lies, and he can’t control where his knife goes when his friend accidentally steps on his new shoe.

This scene is breathtaking.  Literally.  Not one of us in the theater moved or breathed as Levee tried to talk his friend out of being dead.  His stunned anguish and his silent realization that his own life is over is the final roar of the night.

Performances also very well played are Alan Naggar as the long suffering manager, and All Freeman as Ma’s stuttering nephew, who is side splitting as he tries to contribute to the recording.  Neferteri as Ma’s girlfriend is the only casting slip, and direly needs to explore more sides of her character and take an Alexander class for balance and grounding.  Trying to indicate being sexy, she teeters her body around as if she was afraid of the floor.

This production arrives just in time for Black History Month.  This wonderful production plays only until March 7th at the Lillian Theater so RUN don’t walk.  Wilson is fiercely protective of his work and rarely grants regional performance rights to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”  Go see and learn.  What we don’t know about the blues is as important as what we know.