This certainly is August Wilson's year to shine both in theaters and on the screen. It is also the best time to revive "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which has been touted as a "Blazing lyrical and emotional forceThe spellbinding sound of a great American artist singing the history of his culture from the stage, creating a long beautiful song out of unfathomable suffering." This quote by Charles Isherwood, for Variety newspaper is accurate. Small wonder that there is a production being performed somewhere in America every year since its first production at the Yale Reparatory Theatre in 1982.
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is one in Wilson's 10 play cycle that chronicles the twentieth century African American experience. Set in Chicago 1927, (the only play in the cycle not set in Pittsburgh) deals with issues of race, art, religion and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers. By the way the title refers to an actual song of the same name by Ma Rainey, referring to the Black Bottom Dance. Ma Rainey was a real-life jazz singer, a rival contemporary of another black singing great, Bessie Smith.
The plot like most great plots is quite simple to unravel, although searing, it is nevertheless filled with high moments of zingers, the kind of comedy that cuts like a shive. The action takes place in a Chicago recording studio. Ma Rainey's band players are:
The plot: as the musicians are waiting for Ma to arrive they tell stories, joke, philosophize and argue. Tension is apparent between the young hot headed trumpeter Levee, who dreams of having his own band and veterans Cutler and Toledo. By the time Ma Rainey (performed to phenomenal perfection by Canterella Canady) arrives with entourage in tow, recording has fallen badly behind schedule, enraging white producers Mel Sturdyvant (Patrick Day) and Irvin, Ma's manager (Charlie Sloin). Ma's insistence that her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Vladimy Bellefleur) speak the title song's introduction, wreaking further havoc. Add to that Ma's hot to trot steamy girlfriend Dussie Mae (slender, sexy Shaunte Manuel) well you get the picture, and things go from bad to worse.
As the band waits for various technical problems to be solved, Levee and Cutler come to blows. Playwright Wilson lights the dramatic fuse which snakes and hisses through the America's time of racial anguish' which is with us still 38 years later. Ending as it always must, in tragedy for one and all.
So why see this play at the Theatre Conspiracy? Well for one thing the brilliant performances by a cast that take you from highs to lows in a play that is searing, funny, salty, carnal and lyrical. Honestly, you won't see anything finer on any Broadway stage than this production; which is as relevant today as it was when it opened back in 1982.
Not as an aside but in capital letters, high honors to two outstanding directors Sonya McCarter and Tera Nicole Miller. Bravo and thank you for such a profound evening in live theater.
And thank you Bill Taylor for always bringing our Fort Myers audiences the best of the best.
Now, run right over to the phone, dial (239) 936-3239, and see "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" playing at the Theatre Conspiracy until March 11.
Next up is "Nice Tits" (I didn't make up this title Amy Marcs did. She wrote and will perform her play from March 17 to March 19). When you phone for either play remind 'em Marsha sent you.