Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Tag Archives: African-American Chicago

Passionate “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: A Treasure at the Taper

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]

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

Funny, Issue-Filled “Immediate Family” at the Taper

The entire  "Immediate Family" gathers for a heated game of cards [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The entire “Immediate Family” gathers for a heated game of cards
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

It has long been a rule of the theater that social change or tension is best examined in intimate situations. That, for all its prodigious humor, is the aim of Paul Oakley Stovall’s new play “Immediate Family,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. The play offers up an awkward reunion in a family full of secrets and unspoken tensions as a way to look at how the restructuring of the very concept of family creates its own issues in modern America.

The play covers so many issues at the same time that may be its only major flaw: one shuffles from tension to tension, meaning that some get shorter shrift than perhaps they should. Indeed, the playwright’s intent appears to be the conversations one will have afterward with others in attendance. Still, busy though it may be in content, the production itself proves so well conceived the audience leaves satisfied, as the characters prove likable, the comedy is genuine and the message surprisingly heartwarming.

The story takes place in the Hyde Park home in Chicago which Evy Bryant Jerome has inherited from her parents, a powerful African-American preacher father, Jessie, and his always-supportive wife. Indeed, their portrait hangs in the living room, surveying their progeny’s actions with implied expectation and judgement. Now Evy’s brother Tony is getting married, and the widely dispersed clan is gathering: half-sister Ronnie from her home in Europe, and Evy’s favorite brother Jesse, Jr. from New York. For Evy, this is her entire immediate family, but for Jessie, Jr. family extends beyond blood to the silly-tough neighbor girl he grew up with, Nina, and Jesse’s same-sex partner Kristian – whose arrival brings much to the surface.

The conversations this gathering inspires create the play, ranging from issues of orientation, race, class, to what makes a family a family. Evy’s determinedly cultured and almost desperately even approach plays against Nina’s brashness and unabashedly trashy humor. Kristian being a white Swede brings its own disquiets. Even the circumstances of Ronnie’s family connection create issues relating to the noble father’s potential feet of clay. The result is fast-paced, often very funny, sometimes equally wrenching, and a bit like encountering a rubber ball in a small box – bouncing around from surface to surface without ever landing anywhere for long.

The virtual choreography which keeps this from becoming a series of static conversations is beautifully designed by director Phylicia Rashad. Her sense of place and people connects these diverse characters and, with the aid of John Iacovelli’s evocative set, allows them large and small conversations and the intimacies of life in separate but unified spaces. And the performances are uniformly individual and strong.

Shanesia Davis’ upright Evy vibrates with the rigid strength of her upbringing – a sort of seething righteousness – even as it isolates her from the rest of the characters’ innate informality. Kamal Angelo Bolden’s casually happy Tony makes great counterpoint to Davis’ character, and that balance becomes essential. Bryan Terrell Clark gives Jesse a solidly non-stereotypical carriage and a certain playfulness which offsets the serious divisions this character sparks. Cynda Williams provides an egalitarian sense of civilization as Ronnie, the outsider-insider.

The two actual outsiders (at least from a certain perspective) are also the most unlike. Yet, both are catalysts for the necessary explosions which redefine the Bryants themselves. As Nina, the earthy lesbian from next door, J. Nicole Brooks gives a physicality to underlying sexual tensions with a gleeful abandon – an in-your-face counterpoint to the general gentility of the Bryant family. As Kristian, Jesse’s Swedish boyfriend, Mark Jude Sullivan starts out with an almost comical accent, but soon settles into a gentle but confident person determined to not be overlooked.

“Immediate Family” has a charming intimacy, even as it seems to cover a lot of ground rather quickly: religion, mendacity, acceptance, the importance of race, the shadow of a patriarch, all appear in sometimes rapid succession. And yet there are also moments of gentle depth, as the Bryants come gradually to terms with who they are, and how they relate to one-another. And there is laughter – almost constant, healthy laughter over people’s behaviors we cannot help but recognize.

In short, the play is very human. Performed without an intermission it will leave you wanting, truly wishing for, more. Still, what it has to say is apt, and with laughter it manages to get many points
across which might otherwise sink in more slowly. It is certainly worth a look.

What: “Immediate Family” When: through June 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Satudays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

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