note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
After winning several coveted awards, poet-playwright August Wilson continued that success by writing a century cycle of 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, highlighting African-Americans‘ experiences.
The Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner produced eight of those plays at the Huntington Theatre before they appeared in New York, so it’s only fitting Huntington completes the cycle with Wilson’s earlier play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” representing the 1920s.
Although the play centers on famous blues singer Ma Rainey, (nee´ Gertrude Pridgett), it isn’t a musical. Wilson tackles changing times in 1927, from blues to jazz and swing, and the schism between blacks and whites, regardless of fame. However, an occasional song and snippets are performed so well, we want more.
Rainey’s blues permeated Afro-American culture and carved a niche in American entertainment history. She was a flamboyant diva who insisted on “star” treatment.
Clint Ramos’ fabulous set is an old-fashioned, multi-level, Chicago recording studio, where Ma Rainey is about to record some of her biggest hits. Decked out in Ramos’ gorgeous. period costumes, the queen of blues’ entrance is nothing less than royalty. She does things her way or not at all. She doesn’t need advice and resists change. She knows what she’s doing and what her fans want, she insists. She’s made lots of money for her white manager and recording studio owner, so she ignores their song wish list.
Ma has one dissident - her young, hot, handsome brash, trumpet player, Levee, (Jason Bowen) who has written some new songs, and changed the tempo of her greatest hit, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” without her permission.
For almost three hours, Ma’s dedicated band members and Levee hammer away at each other, arguing about several topics, including God, the devil, old ways vs. new, and blacks‘ discrimination and exploitation from white folks.
G. Valmont Thomas as Ma’s dedicated bandleader, Cutler; Charles Weldon as Toledo, her longtime, old-fashioned, gentle philosopher-pianist; and Glenn Turner as bassist Slow Drag shine during these generational clashes, which result in a shocking end. Broadway-TV star Yvette Freeman portrays Ma Rainey with a tough, demanding edge, striking fear, obeisance.and respect in the hearts of her musicians and bosses. Bowen as Levee also captivates as his personality unravels, revealing a terrifying past.
Boston award-winning stars Will LeBow as Ma’s manager, Irvin; Tom Derrah as recording studio owner Sturdyvant; and Timothy John Smith as a street cop on the take unfortunately are underused. The long exchanges in Act I between Sturdyvant and Irvin and among the musicians increase theatergoers’ anticipation of Ma Rainey’s delayed entrance. Between her unreasonable rants and demands, the plot idles, building slowly, then races to colliding conflicts.
Joniece Abbott-Pratt as Ma’s young, pretty companion, and Corey Allen as Ma’s stammering nephew, Sylvester, effectively round out the cast.
Director Liesl Tommy allows the play to lull at times into tiresome repetition, between Ma’s attitude and the band’s several attempts to rehearse. Thoughtful cutting and more tunes would enhance the production. Also, the contemporary rap opening and ending add nothing. Times have changed. We know it.
BOX INFO: Two-act play by August Wilson, at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through April 8. Performances: Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; select Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees, select Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25; seniors, $5 discount; subscribers, BU community, $10 off; patrons 35-below, $25; students, military, with valid ID, $15. Visit huntingtontheatre.org or call 617-266-0800.