In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson establishes a deeply authentic environment through humor, anecdotes and tension that builds to a gut-punching conclusion.
And in Court Theatre’s bold, confident production under the direction of Ron OJ Parson, you easily become invested in the action.
Interestingly, Ma Rainey herself has surprisingly little stage time, with most of the action belonging to her band as they rehearse in the musty basement of a South Side Chicago recording studio while waiting for the notoriously late Ma Rainey to lay down her tracks.
But actual rehearsing barely happens. Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, and Levee share stories, jokes and a song or two. Relationships are revealed, appalling stories of racism and hate are aired, and tensions mount.
The bulk of the action rests on Levee’s shoulders, and James T. Alfred is fantastic as the tightly-coiled, immensely talented and dangerously hot-headed horn player. As the play advances, it’s as if the all the anger in the world comes spitting out of Levee’s mouth, poisoning his mind and his soul. A bravura, brave performance, and a staggering observation on how powerlessness can undermine a being.
As the title character, Greta Oglesby knows how to command attention. The recording studio is Rainey’s domain, and she doesn’t take any shit — not even from her smarmy white producers whose primary objective is to get her voice in the can to make a buck. But the moment she steps outside, she’s just another black woman who can’t hail a cab.
John Culbert’s authentic and storied set allows the multiple layers of action to occur seamlessly. Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli’s nuanced sound design excels in creating the illusion that the actors are actually playing their own instruments.
As my first Wilson play, I found myself captivated. Court Theatre has done him proud.
Watch a video preview here.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs September 17 – October 18, 2009 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue. Visit courttheatre.org for more information.