Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Theatre Review - Brilliant Performances Chase Away the Blues



In a modest recording studio in Chicago, producer Sturdyvant (Matthew Henerson) tenaciously predicts catastrophe, and Irvin (Ed Swidey), a diplomatic business manager of the yet-to arrive blues songstress, can do nothing to assuage his dread. The men have been here before: awaiting the arrival of their most “challenging” artist, hoping to get a recording of her wildly popular blues music before she changes her mind and decides she has something better to do.

 Irvin is heartened by the arrival of the band, even if his star vocalist has not arrived yet. Band Leader & Trombonist Cutler (Damon Gupton) tells Irvin that they have arrived at the time given to them by the singer, so certainly she must be on her way.  Cutler has arrived with piano player Toldedo (Glynn Turman) and upright bass player Slow Drag (Keith David), whom Irvin ushers to the bandroom to rehearse while waiting for their headliner to arrive.

The trio, who have been playing together for decades, settle into a humorous banter about what to expect from the recording session, when their fourth member will show up and if their star will show at all. Enter arrogance and talented trumpet player Levee (Jason Dirden), proudly showing off a new pair of shoes that cost him a week’s salary. Levee is the youthful discontent among this band of old-timers. While his fellow musicians are just looking to get along, Levee is looking to get ahead.



In fact, throughout the evening he and Toledo will verbally spare about the identity of the Black man for that day and age. Toledo will argue that a man can’t know who he is unless he knows about the people and place from which he comes. Conversely, Levee argues that he has been and will always be his own man, the navigator and decider of his own destiny. Levee insists that he knows how to write music, he knows what folks are listening to in the clubs. He longs to make that kind of music, to play that kind of music, to have his own band, something Sturdyvant has promised him, practically.


L-R: Damon Gupton, Ed Swidey, Matthew Henerson and Lillias White in August Wilson’s "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," directed by Phylicia Rashad, playing through October 16, 2016, at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum at the Los Angeles Music Center.



Finally, Ma Rainey (Lillias White) arrives, accompanied by nephew Sylvester (Lamar Richardson), “friend” Dussie Mae (Nija Okoro), escorted by a police officer claiming she as involved in a car incident. With a few twenty-dollar bills, Irvin defuses the situation with the police, only to deal head on with the situations brewing over his shoulder.



Immediately, Ma pulls rank. She wants her nephew on the record so he can be paid. She wants her cola because she never records without it. She wants Dussie Mae to stop flirting with Levee. Sturdyvant wants her to stop wasting time and record the damn songs. Irvin wants Sturdyvant to let him handle Ma. Levee wants Ma to record the songs using his musical arrangements.  Slow Drag wants finish the session before the wee hours of the night. Cutler wants to keep the peace and not be paid at the end of the night by check. And by the end of the night, one of these people not getting what they want will have deadly consequences.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a story of the multi-tiered battleground of opposing ideologies embedded in a tug-of-wills on the backdrop of a war that no one can truly win.  This wonderfully complex piece by August Wilson has precious little to do with music. At its core, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom about power and control; about who has it, who wants it and who truly deserves it despite the sense of entitlement held by others.



The performances of the entire cast are nothing less than majestic. Glynn Turman is given one of the finest performances I have ever seen, as the endearing know-it-all pianist with an unabashed love for his people and his shared African roots. Turman is compelling, funny and genuine from his first line to his last.


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the ninth Center Theatre Group production of the American Century Cycle Plays of acclaimed playwright August Wilson, the sixth to be presented in the Mark Taper, and the second under the skillful direction of Phylicia Rashad.

Performances of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are happening now through October 16, 2016 at:

The Mark Taper

135 North Grand Avenue 

Los Angeles, CA  90012


Photo Credit: All Uses © 2016 Craig Schwartz Photography

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