By Colin Douglas
During the 1920’s, the blues, sung by topnotch black performers, became so popular that it crossed over into mainstream America. The recording industry helped bring African American music from Harlem into the homes of white families all over the nation. Singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey became household names and, although there would be many more years of fighting for Civil Rights, the African American integration movement was, thankfully, about to begin.
That’s not to say that all is well. Anger and frustration gradually begins to mount in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the third installment of August Wilson’s “Pittsburg Cycle, often referred to as his “Century Cycle.” Wilson wanted to create a series of plays that offered white Americans a new way to look at black Americans. This is the only play in his 10-part exploration of the African American experience, taking place during each decade of the 20th century, that isn’t set in Pennsylvania. The play occurs in Chicago, in March of 1927, the blossoming capital of the music recording industry. Written in 1982, Wilson’s play deals with race, religion, art and the exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.
Into Mr. Sturdyvant’s studio, Irvin gets everything ready for a recording session with his African American clients. The band has arrived on time and, while waiting for Ma Rainey, the singing star of the record, they banter, argue, brag and share past experiences in the downstairs waiting room. The musicians include amateur philosopher and pianist, Toledo; bass player and backup vocalist, Slow Drag; trombone and guitar player, Cutler; and young, hot-headed trumpet player, Levee, who plans to write the songs to start his own band. Jokes and stories are told, tension begins to build and feelings are hurt.
Eventually, now badly behind schedule, Ma Rainey arrives with her entourage in tow. She’s the queen bee of the record business, an outspoken diva who can’t get a cab on the Chicago streets, but knows she can call the shots and rule the roost inside the recording studio. Madame (whose real name is Gertrude Pridgett), called “The Mother of the Blues,” knows that she has her agent Irvin and recording mogul Sturdyvant by the short hairs. Her childish demands for a Coke, before she begins singing, and her insistence that her stuttering nephew, Sylvester, be included on the recording, are met with frustrated compliance. Technical difficulties test everyone’s patience and Levee and Cutler come to blows. The play ends in a tragedy that evolves out of the frustration and power wielded by the white record producer.
In Ron OJ Parson’s dynamic production of this excellent play with sung music at Writers Theatre, everything is in its proper place and feels like pure perfection. Todd Rosenthal’s gorgeous, detailed set looks like an old Chicago church that’s been remodeled to accommodate the demands of this 1920’s recording studio. Myrna Colley-Lee’s beautiful period costumes, particularly Ma Rainey’s bright, fuchsia pink gown, fur-collared coat and crowning headdress, offer a wardrobe of meticulously researched and finely created fashions.
There are no heroes in this play, but that’s not the point. In this gorgeous production the excellent casting and high performance level is as winning as anything you’re likely to see anywhere. Kelvin Roston, Jr. is phenomenal as Levee. Returning to Writers Theatre once again to work with Parson, after his star-turning performance in East Texas Hot Links, this actor again demonstrates great acting chops, while also showing his talent on the trumpet. It’s this fine actor’s performance that’s the focal point of Wilson’s moving drama, and one of the many reasons to see this production. David Alan Anderson is terrific as Toledo, the respected, philosophical pianist who shares his vast knowledge of history and life to his fellow musicians. On the keyboard, Anderson is equally adept as he is with words and class.
A.C. Smith establishes his mighty presence on the Writers Stage once again (being another veteran of this theatre’s Moon for the Misbegotten” and East Texas Hot Links), this time strumming the strings of the bass, as Slow Drag. The deep-voiced Smith leaves his indelible mark on this production, with his powerful pronouncements and fine dance moves.
And Alfred H. Wilson, a veteran of the playwright’s “Century Cycle,” also returns to Writers Theatre, after appearing in “East Texas Hot Links.” As Cutler, he’s the band’s eldest member and often the wise, calming agent when things become heated. However, the one area for which Cutler won’t tolerate any badmouthing is when it comes to religion. It’s then that Cutler, as elegantly portrayed by Mr. Wilson, passionately defends his beliefs and his God.
Peter Moore is a gentle negotiator, playing the musicians’ Caucasian talent agent, Mr. Irwin. Thomas J. Cox makes his Writers Theatre debut as a Sturdyvant, the weaselly record producer who’s easily badgered by Ma Rainey and coerced by Irwin, but who gets the final word in the end. Blake Montgomery does a fine job as a Chicago cop who’s not above taking financial bribes to smooth over matters.
Jalen Gilbert also returns to Writers from his stellar performance in East Texas Hot Links to play Sylvester, Ma Rainey’s stuttering nephew, with earnest innocence. Tiffany Renee Johnson, who recently burned up the stage in American Blues Theater’s production of Flyin’ West, is wonderful as the flirtatious Dussie Mae, Ma Rainey’s sexy companion. This young actress is someone to watch.
But the titular Ma Rainey is the true star of this show. She’s played by Chicago theatrical royalty in the personage of Felicia P. Fields. An undisputed queen of the Windy City stage, Fields is well-known to audiences and her reputation is justifiably well-deserved. As Ma Rainey, the prima donna of the Blues during the Roaring Twenties, this Chicago actress reins supreme. It’s hard to imagine any other actress capable of commanding such respect while appearing to wield so much power over the “little people” in her world. Felicia P. Fields is a force of nature and should not be missed.
This is a stupendous production, written by one of America’s stellar playwrights and directed by one of Chicago’s finest directors. While there’s not many songs sung in this play, it’s the music of August Wilson’s words that float in the air and hit home. Director Ron OJ Parson has assembled a magnificent, multi-talented cast, supported by a talented crew of theatre artists who’ve vividly supported his artistic vision. This is a not-to-be-missed production that will absolutely inform, entertain and inspire.
Writers Theatre presents “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” through March 17 at 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. More information and tickets are available here.