“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” Gives A Glimpse Into Early August Wilson

The cast of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," playing at the Black Rep through May 13th. Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein.

Although a tragedy, there’s a lot of humor and some great character development in the Black Rep’s production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Before there was the Pittsburgh Cycle, playwright Wilson drew on his early love of the blues and Bessie Smith in particular to fashion this look at a prima donna and her band as they live life in 1927 America.

The wonderful set design of Tim Case puts you in the mood as soon as you hit your seat at the Grandel Square Theatre. They’ve moved the set forward in front of the proscenium with the recording booth above the on stage studio and the band rehearsal room below the stage level where most of the action takes place. We’re introduced to a hyper Ton Wethington as the studio owner who is warning Ma’s manager, Irvin, played by Chad Morris about Ma’s penchant for being a disruptive influence with a proclivity for being late.

As the band strolls in for rehearsal, we are introduced to Antonio Fargas as Cutler, the leader and trombone player in the group; the arbitrator/piano player, Toledo, played with style by Ron Himes; the man with a past behind his name, Slow Drag, as played by Erik Kilpatrick; and the brash young horn player, Levee, played with a Jamie Fox kind of bravado by Ronald Connor. The play is really about them as their various stories and backgrounds are divulged as the play progresses.

Ron Himes, Erik Kilpatrick and Ronald Connor in the Black Rep's production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein.

Ma Rainey is played to perfection by jaki-terry. She commands the stage with her self-assured resentment and the feeling that the only way is her way. Joining her are Maurice Demus as her stuttering nephew and Evann Jones as the smoking Dussie Mae who stirs the plot. With an overriding theme of distrust, prejudice and an uncaring populace, the lives of these folks- particularly the musicians, unfold in a great acting ensemble.

Ed Smith has done a masterful job with the direction and, despite lacking the punch of his later plays, this is a delightful insight into August Wilson and the great playwright he was about to become. The shocking final scene is a bit abrupt but highly effective.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” plays at the Black Rep through May 13th. Contact them at 314-534-3807 or at http://www.theblackrep.org for more information.

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