Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Review - Blues: Life's Way of Talking

Playwright August Wilson set out to explore the heritage and experience of African-Americans, decade-by-decade, over the course of the twentieth century. The first play in the cycle, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, explores the 1920’s by bringing to life the story of real-life Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, reputedly the “mother of the blues.” At the same time, the titular star of the play ends up secondary to the contentious ramblings of her back-up band. Talented director Phylicia Rashad skillfully weaves backstories of the band members into the fabric of Wilson’s reflections on African-American history and how it created African-American music:  “White folks don’t understand about the blues…they hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.” Wilson sees his task as helping people of today develop that understanding.

Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David, and Lillias White - Photo by Craig Schwartz

The action takes place in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio and brings together Ma Rainey, her manager, the studio owner, her entourage (including her lesbian lover), and the members of her blues band. One of the first black singers to be signed to a white label, Ma Rainey (Lillias White) has a reputation to uphold, and she does so in a demanding, relentless way. From insisting that the room temperature be raised, that her nephew, a severe stutterer, do the introduction to her song, that she can’t go on without a Coke – all underscore how she has learned to deal with the white folks in her circle.

Lillias White as Ma Rainey - Photo by Craig Schwartz

But the real action is below decks, in the band rehearsal room, where band members banter, tease, and argue about the state of the world. That’s where old-timers - philosophical Toledo (Glynn Turman), pothead Slow Drag (Keith David), band leader Cutler (Damon Gupton) – and younger and angrier trumpet player Levee (Jason Dirden) have congregated to get ready for the session. Sparks soon begin to fly as Levee prances around in his snappy new shoes (which cost a week’s pay) and shared reefers make an appearance. Levee is sure that he’s the real talent in the room and wants to jazz up Ma Rainey’s signature song in keeping with the evolution of blues up north.  He ignores warnings by the older band members, who suggest that he remember his role as back-up – a warning confirmed by Ma Rainey in no uncertain terms only minutes later. The tug of war between old and new continues as tempers flare, perhaps leading to a conflagration of styles and power.

Mija Okoro, Lillias White, and Lamar Richardson - Photo by Craig Schwartz

Wilson’s play and Rashad’s direction make a great duet as they flesh out the many characters in the tale – all the while also fleshing out the African-American experience of the decade. The strong cast makes the words – and melodies – sing to the underlying beat of the time. Play, director, actors – all join together to produce a memorable cross-section of the black experience.

Jason Dirden and Nija Okoro - Photo by Craig Schwartz

However, John Iacovelli’s scenic design seems to work against, rather than for, the production. The stage is divided into an upper and a lower portion – with the bulk of the action taking place below. The lines, actions, and songs were clear and crisp on the upper stage. However, when the action moved to the lower stage, it was difficult to hear Wilson’s powerful lines. In fact, this reviewer polled a dozen audience members sitting in the same area and discovered that they all had significant difficulty hearing the lines when delivered on the lower stage. In addition, it was difficult to see some of the action on the lower stage when that action was abutting the section near the audience; and heads were swiveling and necks craning as the audience tried to follow movement in that area.

Damon Gupton and Lillias White - Photo by Craig Schwartz

Elizabeth Harper’s lighting, Dan Moses Schreier’s sounds, and especially Emilio Sosa’s costumes were welcome enhancements to the 1920’s ambiance. This production was effective in transporting the audience into the 1920’s, and that was as it should be. Steven Bargonetti’s skilled music direction, arrangements, and additional music amply filled the bill. After seeing this production, one can only hope that other plays in Wilson’s cycle are on the way.

Glynn Turman and Lillias White - Photo by Craig Schwartz

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM runs through October 16, 2016, with performances at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays.  The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA. Tickets range from $25 to $85. For information and reservations, call 213-628-2772 or go online

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