Fame is a funny thing. The legendary "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey, was the ultimate diva, filling an entire room with her presence and demands, her gold dresses and her bohemian bisexuality. But for all of her talent and fame, because she was an African-American woman in the 1920s, she couldn't catch a cab or use a public restroom.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a two-act play by August Wilson and directed by Katie Damp, provides a glimpse into Rainey's world, and that of African-Americans at the time. Presented by TheatreWorks, the show will run through Dec. 12.
Ma Rainey originally opened in 1984, as part of a goal that Wilson had laid out for himself: to write ten plays about the African-American experience, chronicling each decade in the 20th century. The play takes place in a small room, and the events that occur are a microcosm, embodying the cultural struggles that America faced then and now.
The show opens with a glammed-up Ma, played with brash charm by Shelley McMillion Burl, sashaying her way through the audience. Bangles flying, flapper-era fabulous in a leopard print coat and turquoise feathers, she steps onto a small stage and immediately launches into song, instructing everyone to "trust no man!" as appropriately tinny horns swagger in the background. With a self-satisfied, "Mm-hmm!" she struts offstage, leaving us with just a taste of the star.
In a warmly lit, sepia-colored studio, a recording session is being set up for Ma. Two white men, Ma's agent, Irvin (Danny Bristol) and the record producer, Sturdyvant (Bruce Carter) fuss about Ma's attitude, her record sales, and their obvious lack of control over her. Typically stuffy with power, they are white stereotypes in a play about stereotypes and power. The actors' interaction comes off as stiff, but interestingly so.
Enter Ma's band, instruments in tow. The trombonist, Cutler (Jerome Davis) is perfect in a pinstripe near-zoot suit, resembling a bald Cab Calloway. Toledo (Russell Costen) is an old piano-playing papa figure, exuding warmth and a healthy dose of armchair philosophy. The bassist Slow Drag (Michael Peters) is played with quiet strength and humor. Levee (Kennedy Reilly-Pugh) is the young upstart, with his eye on his aspirations as well as some ass. Natural with each other, the men embody? the show's heart. They head downstairs to the dingy practice room, waiting for the perpetually late Ma.
While they wait, they lecture to one another about life, women and pre-civil rights movement ideas. Wilson has an obvious love for soliloquies, and most are handled well, though a few lull the listener's mind into a haze. Rehearsal is often broken up with arguments, with an indignant Levee frequently pitted against the rest of the band over musical arrangements and race.
Levee's rowdy role is energetic, often petulant, and a bit unbalanced. In it, Reilly-Pugh is heartbreaking, showing real musical talent and charisma. The actor shines when Levee slides into desperate rage, stopping the show on a heart-stomping dime.
Finally, Ma makes her appearance, dragging along her sweet, stuttering nephew (Shawn Leflore) and vampy girlfriend (Melissa Taylor). In life, Ma was a larger-than-life woman (in both personality and physicality), and for the most part, Burl relays that well. Ma controls what she can, where she can -- the studio -- harboring no delusions that her stardom carries far in the white world.
The show suffered a bit from first-night stutters, tripping up what should have been quick, quick dialogue. The ending's action sequence still managed to make the audience gasp. Overall, what starts as a light, jocular play showcasing fine blues turns raw with violence. It's not an easy shift to make, but the actors handle it deftly.
-- Kara Luger
TheatreWorks presents Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
The Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, UCCS campus, 3955 Cragwood Drive
Through Dec. 12
Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinee, 2 p.m.; Sunday matinee, 4 p.m.