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‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ by PTCBY: Dan Rottenberg 05.27.2010
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom uses a blues band’s 1927 recording session to illuminate the self-destructive black rage engendered by centuries of white oppression. This compelling revival by Philadelphia Theatre Company demonstrates that, like all works of art, August Wilson’s modern classic succeeds at several other levels as well.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. By August Wilson; directed by Irene Lewis. Philadelphia Theatre Co. production through June 13, 2010 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard). (215) 885-1400 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
Bigotry and its consequencesDAN ROTTENBERG
A great work of art succeeds at many levels. At its most elementary level, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom brilliantly uses a blues band’s 1927 recording session in Chicago as a prism through which to illuminate the self-destructive black rage engendered by centuries of white oppression.
In August Wilson’s compelling and powerful portrayal of the interactions among four black musicians, the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey and her entourage, Ma’s white manager, the white studio operator and a white cop, even the most casual disagreement becomes a potentially tragic explosion. Ma may be widely celebrated as “the mother of the blues,” and the musicians may create awesome sounds when they unleash their instruments, but out on the street their skin color reduces them to disrespected nobodies, and that knowledge haunts their every waking minute.
For anyone who came of age since the Civil Rights revolution of the ’60s— anyone under 50 who can’t understand all the fuss about an even partially black man in the White House— Ma Rainey provides, in the course of three hours, a valuable reminder of just how psychologically oppressive life was (for whites as well as blacks) in a not so distant past when American racism was institutionalized not merely by custom but by law. The current riveting if exhausting production by Philadelphia Theatre Company is a worthy experience for that reason alone.
A question of authority
But for the elders among us who recall those days all too well, Ma Rainey offers an engaging meditation on a conflict even older than America’s race wars: the battle between art and commerce. And at the play’s ultimate level lies the equally troubling question of authority: who exercises it, how it is acquired, and whence it springs.
To Toledo, the pianist, authority derives from the books he reads and the facts he accumulates; to Levee, the trumpet player, it springs from his unique creative talent and his stylish attire; to Ma Rainey, it flows from her celebrity and her earning power; to Irvin, her manager, it stems from his ability to get things done; to Sturdyvant the studio owner, it stems from his property; to the cop, it stems from his badge. And beneath these distinctions, of course, lies the factor that trumps all the others: skin color.
A black Citizen Kane
Thus when the musicians decide to play Levee’s arrangement of a song (because he’s a brilliant musician), Ma Rainey (who’s their meal ticket) instructs them. “What you all say don’t count with me,” and insists that they play it her way. If only to flaunt her power, Ma will foist her stuttering nephew on the session, much the way the publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane foisted his meek-voiced wife upon the opera world in Citizen Kane.
Yet when Ma finds herself at the mercy of an Irish street cop after a minor traffic offense, and dependent on her manager Irwin to resolve the crisis, all she can do is flail and shout helplessly. Ma bitterly observes that Irwin has invited her to his home only once in their long relationship, and then only to entertain his white friends. She uses Irwin and Sturdyvant as whipping boys for her fury at whites in general, in a manner eerily similar to the real-life relationship I described just the other day between the late singer Lena Horne and her white bandleader husband Lennie Hayton. (Read it here.)
Scholar vs. savage
Each of the band musicians gradually emerges as an individual in his own right, but Toledo and Levee are the most interesting of the four. Toledo, played with an insistent dignity by Thomas Jefferson Byrd, is a frustrated would-be scholar, condemned by his fate to interact with his intellectual lessers (much like, say, the odd Ivy League graduate on a pro football team).
Levee, as played by the magnetically hyperactive Maurice McRae, seems at first an almost savage force of nature— “a fool,” as Toledo calls him— with a childlike inability to delay gratification or take instruction. (“You can’t change who you are by how you dress,” the bassist Slow Drag tells him.) Yet as we discover, Levee is a complex man whose hunger to “make the white man respect me” can be traced to a shattering moment in his childhood.
Wilson’s mighty script, Irene Lewis’s straightforward staging and an almost perfectly chosen ensemble in tandem realistically retain the play’s interest for what would normally be a long evening. (When the musicians feign playing, you almost think it’s the real thing.) Only the physical violence of the final denouement struck me as heavy-handed and unnecessary: By that time I thought Wilson had amply made his points many times over. But then, if my ancestors had been subjected to 244 years of slavery plus another hundred years of legal second-class citizenship, I might react differently.
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