By Patrick Hurley
August Wilson’s blues masterpiece Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes to vivid life in director Phylicia Rashad’s stunning production, playing now at the Mark Taper Forum.
This production is why the phrase pitch-perfect was created. Every element of this play falls into perfect place, and encapsulates a moment in time with such persuasive rhythm that it’s hard to let it go at the end of the evening.
Ma Rainey was the first to be written of became August Wilson’s Century Cycle plays, a series of ten plays, one set in each decade of the 20th century, and each dealing with the African-American experience in that decade. Ma Rainey is set in the 1920s, and in it we can clearly see the effusive prose, the struggles with spirituality, racial discrimination, and destiny that will weave their way through all ten plays.
The play takes place in a band room and a recording studio in Chicago in 1927. We’re introduced to the band, a quartet made up of Cutler (Damon Gupton), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Keith David), and the youngest member Levee (Jason Dirden). The foursome make their way to the band room to rehearse while they wait for the arrival of blues star Ma Rainey (Lillas White). And while the rehearsal starts out with jokes and banter, it soon becomes clear that there is an underlying tension, particularly from Levee, who’s anger can be seen slowly bubbling up from the beginning. An anger that is antagonized by older members Toledo and Cutler.
When Ma arrives with her lover Dussie Mae (Nija Okoro), and her nephew Sylvester (Lamar Richardson), her white producers are desperate to get started, after falling behind schedule. The tension between Ma and producer Sturdyyvant (Matthew Henerson) nicely echoes the tensions of capitalism vs. workers of the era, and Ma holds the power because she won’t sign the rights of the songs over to Sturdyyvant until she’s satisfied with the recording and is paid in full.
The thematic development of power can also be seen between Levee and the rest of the band. Ma and the three older members of the band are representatives of an older generation, as evidenced by the way they all insist on the recording of the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” be in its old style. The way it used to be sung. And so Levee is the catalyst for the future generations of African-Americans, and in 1927, the road to that future is not so hospitably paved. So as tensions rise between Levee and the others, so too do the stakes. And Wilson’s pacing of it is structured much like a blues song. There’s a methodical build filled with repetition, poetry and tales of struggle. It’s a slow-burn toward an inevitable confrontation that will leave the audience breathless.
Director Phylicia Rashad masterfully allows the natural rhythm of the play to take over, and she works much like a conductor holding all of the elements together without overcomplicating a single one of them. She knows the beautiful simplicity of August Wilson’s lyrical prose needn’t be decorated with anything but brutal honesty, and that’s all she gives it.
In keeping things simple, the gorgeous set, designed by John Lacovelli, is a split-level with the recording studio elevated upstage of the band room, allowing the scenes between the two to flow seamlessly back-and-forth.
The ensemble is spectacular. Glynn Turman is wonderful as the affable and hilarious Toledo. Lillas White is a powerhouse as Ma Rainey. And Jason Dirden is absolutely magnificent as Levee, his monologue at the end of the first Act is so spot-on terrific and fueled with such bravado that it is unforgettable. Levee’s slow building anger about the injustices that he faces in the world, an anger that builds to an absolute terrifying conclusion are so deftly handled by Mr. Dirden that, in the end, there is no easy resolution, we don’t know how to feel about him, because the marriage of writing, directing and acting come together so succinctly as to create a nearly perfect moment of theater.
The same can be said for this entire production. It doesn’t miss a beat. It rolls along with the rhythm of some of the greatest blues, and packs a serious wallop. It’s the best of what theater can do.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
By August Wilson
Directed by Phylicia Rashad
Through October 16
The Mark Taper Forum
135 N. Grand Avenue L.A. 90012.
Tickets: (213) 628-2772 or online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Tickets range from $25 – $85 (ticket prices are subject to change).