Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Written by August Wilson, Directed by Liesl Tommy; Scenic and Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Marcus Doshi; Original Music, Sound Design, and Music Direction by Broken Chord; Production Stage Manager, Leslie Sears; Stage Manager, Kevin Robert Fitzpatrick
CAST (in order of appearance): Thomas Derrah, Will LeBow, G. Valmont Thomas, Charles Weldon, Glenn Turner, Jason Bowen, Yvette Freeman, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Timothy John Smith, Corey Allen
Performances through April 8 at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org
In 1986, the Huntington Theatre Company began an affiliation with playwright August Wilson that lasted longer than many modern marriages. Over the next two decades, as part of a cadre of regional theaters led by Yale Repertory Theatre, they worked together to develop eight of the plays that comprise Wilson's Century Cycle. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was the first of his ten plays about the black experience, one for each decade of the 20th century, and HTC completes its presentation of the cycle with the noteworthy production now being staged under the direction of Liesl Tommy.
Acclaimed for her artistry at the helm of Ruined in 2011, once again Tommy skillfully gets at the heart of the story and the characters, evoking the feel of both the racial and generational divides experienced by Ma and her band of musicians. The play is set in a recording studio in Chicago in 1927 with the black songstress doing her damnedest to maintain artistic control of her creation while the white record executive pressures her and her white manager panders to her. Meanwhile, the band members engage in a verbal tug of war which breaks down along age and philosophical lines. Do they play the title song bluesy, the way Ma wants it, or do they use the young trumpeter's version which introduces a jazzy element that pleases the white man? In this one argument over stylistic choices, Wilson depicts the Zeitgeist and sets up the thematic metaphor of the play.
Ma Rainey was a professional blues singer and recording artist in the early decades of the twentieth century and this is nominally a slice of her story. Owing to her talent and admirers, she was comfortable wielding her power insofar as she could. If things didn't work out to her liking in the studio, she would get back on her bus and tour. Yvette Freeman (NBC's ER) is a force of nature when she bursts onto the stage in a frenzy with her followers and a police officer in hot pursuit, immediately establishing the take no prisoners temperament of her character. Freeman's Ma is self-assured and commanding, but also introspective and caring. When she sings, her features soften, her smile broadens, and her whole body delivers the message of a lifetime in song.