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
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.