“1-2-You know what to do…”
With Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre Company’s sterling reputation as the city’s premier interpreter of August Wilson’s work, one would think it’s as easy as counting to three for them to mount yet another searing and soulful production from the writer’s landmark Century Cycle.
It may look and sound easy, but that in no way takes away from the talent on display. It only makes it more astounding that they’ve done it again.
Step one is choosing the show. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in the late 1920s and stands out from the other plays Wilson’s series chronicling the lives of African-Americans across the 20th century because it is set in Chicago rather than in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Step two is installing Pittsburgh Playwright’s Artistic Director Mark Clayton Southers at the helm. He writes passionately in the program about how recording a production of Ma Rainey set him on the path to pursuing theatre. As usual, his passion translates thrillingly onstage.
Step three is assembling an all-star cast of actors to bring Wilson’s incredible characters and poetry to life. Wali Jamal (a premiere August Wilson interpreter in his own right) and Charles Timbers are joined by acclaimed artist/activist/performer Vanessa German in the titanic titular role.
Although Ma Rainey only enters the scene about halfway through Act I, her presence looms large over the play as a whole. We’re first introduced to her manager Irvin (a believingly beleaguered Mel Packer) being berated about his client’s diva behavior by Mr. Sturdyvant (Mark Whitehead), who owns and runs a recording studio where Ma Rainey is past due for a session. When her band arrives without her, Irvin sends them to the basement to rehearse.
In this cramped room, decorated with discarded instruments and rusty lockers by scenic designer Diane Melchitzkym, is where the beating heart and throbbing brain of Mr. Wilson’s play is truly housed. Band leader/trombonist Cutler (Timbers) tries to conduct a productive rehearsal but philosophical differences spark explosive discord among the group. Pianist Toledo (Jamal), the only literate member of the band, speaks in metaphors about the black person’s place in the world that leave Cutler and bassist Slow Drag (Sam Lothard) dumbfounded. Trumpeter Levee’s (Jonathan Berry) grandstanding and advocating for assimilation with white folks as a way to get ahead in the business cause him to butt heads with just about everyone.
This quartet may not actually play their instruments, but their interplay is no less musical. All of their scenes are riveting movements of a verbal and cultural concerto, in which each man plays a breathtaking solo.
Mr. Berry shines in the flashiest role with a performance that lives up to his character’s name. When Levee breaks and bares his physical and emotional scars, you shatter right along with him. Veterans Mr. Timbers and Mr. Jamal naturally bring a lot of gravitas to their roles as they go toe to toe with Mr. Berry. Mr. Lothard’s honest portrayal of someone who simply wants to complete an honest day’s work and go home is extremely relatable. It’s four tour de forces for the price of one.
The wait for Madame Rainey’s entrance may be long, but Ms. German makes it well worth your while when she storms in with an entourage in tow: her nephew Sylvester (Malic Williams), her girl Dussie Mae (Shakirah Stephens), and a police officer (Thomas Fuchel) ready to arrest her. Decked out in costume designer Cheryl El-Walker’s shimmering emerald gown, she deliciously savors every syllable as she tears down the officer, Irvin, and Sturdyvant for giving her unnecessary grief. Before she can record a take of the titular track, she demands a bottle of Coca-Cola and that Sylvester, a chronic stutterer, record a spoken intro to the song. As Sylvester struggles and Ma digs in, tensions reach a fever pitch. But, as always, Ma gets what exactly what she wants.
This feels like the role Ms. German was born to play. She’s formidable in the face of opposition, powerful in front of the microphone, and warm when caring of her young wards. You can see some of her ways rub off on them. Ms. Stephens and Mr. Williams bring refreshing notes of strength to their passive characters.
Sadly, it’s cliche to point out how works that were written decades ago, and set in times even further back than that, can be relevant in today’s troubled society. Luckily, Mr. Southers drives this point home with subtlety rather than a sledgehammer. The bifurcated stage establishes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as a cautionary tale for all those with dreams of stardom. Whether you make it or not, the result can be tragic. The choice to put your true self and your work out into the world is a risky one.
For now though, when it comes to the choice of buying tickets to another masterful Pittsburgh Playwrights production of an August Wilson masterpiece, you know what to do.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom plays at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company through October 1st. For tickets and more information, click here.
Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.
Categories: Archived Reviews