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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 http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

August Wilson’s “Jitney” takes a fine ride in Pasadena

Ellis E. Williams, David McKnight and Larry Bates contemplate a grudge-match of checkers in the Pasadena Playhouse production of August Wilson’s “Jitney”

When discussing the work of August Wilson, it is not whether or not to like his plays, but which to like the most. His spin on the African-American experience, gained by walking through a century in the Hill District of Pittsburgh one decade at a time, has not only left an indelible historical legacy, but cemented Wilson as one of the great playwrights of the 20th Century. His characters, rich and flawed, wrap around each other like the strains of the blues – sometimes a portrait of despair, sometimes filled with an underlying ebullience, always inspiring a connection for those who take time to listen.

A personal favorite is “Jitney,” now at The Pasadena Playhouse after a run at South Coast Rep. Set in 1977 in a gypsy cab company headquarters, it offers up intricate portraits of individuals at the same time it defines the unintended consequences of well-meaning urban renewal, and the fight against the dissolving of a neighborhood. Its characters – one after another – defy expectation even as they radiate an underplayed integrity which becomes its own bond. Flawed, sometimes very funny, these men will charm even as they make you ponder.

Charlie Robinson leads the cast as the honorable, respected Becker – leader of these independent cabbies, and a man whose name garners respect as far away as the industrial plant from which he retired. Still, he wrestles with the burden of an only son whose anticipated release from prison underscores all that went wrong in his life. Robinson’s Becker balances a calm everyday exterior with a hidden intensity in a way which makes his outbursts carry a particular weight.

Joining Robinson are Ellis E. Williams, very funny and rather pitiable in turns as the gossipy Turnbo, David McKnight as the upbeat, surprisingly self-aware alcoholic Fielding, and James A Watson, Jr. using the subtlety of body movement to display solid dependability as Doub. Larry Bates gives a warmth and a passionate earnestness to the young Darnell, rising above his past despite expectations. Kristy Johnson, as the woman inspiring Darnell to be his best self creates a fine balance between the mild panic of a financially strapped young mother and an underlying tenderness.

Rolando Boyce, as the friendly bookie and Gregg Daniel as a supportive hotel doorman provide moments of great fun, and a look at the larger community. Montae Russell, as Becker’s parolee son, offers up some of the show’s greatest passion, and with Robinson inhabits the play’s most important dialogue – an argument which hinges on the nature of manliness, and the balance between pride and responsibility.

Director Ron OJ Parson, who understudied the original production of “Jitney,” has a feel for who these people are in a way which fashions this ensemble into a cohesive community. Timing is both natural and spot-on. Passions rise as passions do, taking us inside the frame in a way Wilson’s plays should. We laugh with them. We fear for them. We are among them.

Kudos also to costumer Dana Rebecca Woods, whose careful reproduction of time and place combines with an essential sense of character. Indeed, her clothes occasionally take focus just at the moment when the play itself demands instant definition of character or purpose. The polish of craft is also present in Shaun Motley’s homey if run-down taxi station: just warm enough to be friendly, and just ratty enough to legitimize the urban development which might destroy it.

“Jitney” is warm, charming, funny, direct, angry, wrenching, and as deeply satisfying a play as one will find. I felt so when it was new, and perhaps even more so now. This production allows all of that to flourish. August Wilson’s dialogue rings real and true, and says much which needs saying about nobility or fragility in adversity and the internal hope which keeps people, and a people, moving forward.

What: “Jitney” When: Through July 15, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $29 – $59 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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