L-R: Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David and Lillias White in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directed by Phylicia Rashad. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]
More than any other American playwright, the late, Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson captured snapshots of the past 100 years of African-American history with a delicate combination of poetry, personhood and precision. For the most part, his plays were set in individual decades within the same predominantly Black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, The one exception in location is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which shifts to the Chicago of the 1920s, and the music scene growing there.
Now open in a new, sharp and moving production at the Mark Taper Forum, a group of studio blues musicians gather to rehearse and await the arrival of the great Ma Rainey. While they debate and discuss, and occasionally play in the studio rehearsal room, the star’s white manager and the white studio owner bicker in the studio itself over the viability of blues in the modern market, and over who should have control regarding the upcoming session – them or Ma.
Under the insightful direction of Phylicia Rashad, a truly extraordinary ensemble of actors bring all the tensions, ambitions and joys of this era and these people to fully-formed life.
As the old hand studio musicians wrestle over style and possibiities with a brash young trumpeter/composer, the balance between ambition and anger, and between complacency and danger become increasingly overt. When Ma actually arrives, she proves commanding, much to the frustration of the white men who brought her there.
How long will such command last? What is her status, really, in such a segregated era? And what legitimacy does her success give to the ambitions of the young trumpeter looking to make his own future?
Damon Gupton and Keith David embody the easy-going feel of long-time musicians who have created a comfortable space for themselves as back-up to musical stars. Glynn Turman, as the aging, well-read and philosophical piano player, marks the middle ground between his comrades’ complacency and a pride of race and of place. That they play this music as if they’d been doing it all their lives is an added plus.
Lillias White gives Ma Rainey herself an almost ferocous presence, and her singing is truly a nod to the blues greats of the period. Nija Okoro, as Ma’s female companion, radiates a country innocence and curiosity as, though in a dissimilar way, does Lamar Richardson as Ma’s young, stuttering nephew.
Ed Swidey makes Ma’s manager about as obsequious as a white man would be to a Black star of the era. On the other hand, Matthew Henerson’s grouchy and commanding studio owner overtly expresses the understanding that the artists under his roof are simply the tools of his trade, and equally expendable.
Still, as the most interesting, and most damaged of these characters, Jason Dirden shines as the trumpeter aiming to sell his own songs played by a band he hopes to create in the aftermath of this recording session. The intensity he brings, at once annoying to his fellow musicians and an almost visceral voice of change, powers the entire play.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” proves compelling from start to finish, which is no surprise in any Wilson play, particularly when this well and elegantly performed. Deep, warm and legitimately, startlingly angry at times, the play vibrates with a life Wilson celebrates like no other. Take the time to enjoy this theatrical treat.
What: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” When: through October 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (no public performances October 4-7) Where: The Mark Taper Forum, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org