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Review: 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' finds joy in painful story

From left, Alan Bomar Jones, Ben Cain, Ron Bobb-Semple and Kim Sullivan star as a group of musicians in the American Stage production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson. The play is directed by Mark Clayton Southers.

LARA CERRI | Times

From left, Alan Bomar Jones, Ben Cain, Ron Bobb-Semple and Kim Sullivan star as a group of musicians in the American Stage production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson. The play is directed by Mark Clayton Southers.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was the first play to be produced, in 1984, in what became August Wilson's Century Cycle. It is one of the angriest of his 10 plays that chronicle African-American life in the 20th century. A bitter, painful story about the bigotry of the white man is never far away in the talk among four black musicians in the band room of a Chicago recording studio in 1927.

And yet Ma Rainey is also a poetically beautiful, often hilarious play because of the richly expressive banter of the three older musicians, pianist Toledo, trombonist Cutler and bassist Slow Drag, played by, respectively, Kim Sullivan, Alan Bomar Jones and Ron Bobb-Semple. They top a marvelous production directed by Mark Clayton Southers at American Stage.

Wilson loved hanging around musicians, and his warm portrayal of these guys is a joy, from Bomar Jones reciting "One … two … you know what to do" to kick off each number to the Caribbean lilt of Bobb-Semple's singing Hear Me Talking to You. Sullivan's Toledo is the intellectual of the bunch — the only one who can read — and his pungent observations on "the lot of the colored man" are brilliant.

The fourth musician, a young trumpet player named Levee (Ben Cain), is an edgier, angrier character, and he is responsible for the devastating tragedy that comes at the end of the recording session.

Though the fabled blues singer Ma Rainey has her name in the title, she is a secondary character. Sharon Scott plays her as a kind of force of nature — waiting for Ma to show up for the recording session is like waiting for Godot — and does a rousing rendition of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Brandii plays Ma's girlfriend (she also gets it on in the band room with Levee), and Joe Parra gives a luscious performance as the white producer Sturdyvant, ripping off the black musicians. Bill Karnovsky is Ma's harried white manager. Gregory "Rico" Parker plays Ma's nephew, Sylvester, whose stuttering — shades of The King's Speech — is a key element of the plot.

Costumer Saidah Ben Judah captures 1920s style right down to the long green feather in Ma's hat. Scott Cooper's set is full of telling details, like the cracked linoleum floor and the glow of an offstage red light that goes on when tape is rolling.

I couldn't help but think about the perennial controversy over the n-word in Huckleberry Finn, and its replacement by "slave" in a new edition, because the word is strewn throughout Ma Rainey. Cringe-inducing as the word is, its constant use in the dialogue of the black musicians could never be tweaked without ruining the play.

Incidentally, Ma Rainey is a play very much worth reading for Wilson's vivid stage directions and character descriptions. His introduction is a virtuoso riff on Chicago and the blues.

More theater

• Race by David Mamet is receiving its first production in the state at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota. Mamet had this to say about it in an essay for the New York Times: "In my play a firm made up of three lawyers, two black and one white, is offered the chance to defend a white man charged with a crime against a black young woman. It is a play about lies."

The FST production has Jeffrey Plunkett, Ronald Siebert, Kevyn Morrow and Toccarra Cash in the cast and is directed by Richard Hopkins. It opened this week and runs through March 19. $19-$34. (941) 366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

. If you go

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The August Wilson play runs through Feb. 20 at American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. Shows are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. $29-$50, with student rush tickets for $10 a half-hour before curtain. No performance Feb. 15; the Feb. 20 performance will be at 6 p.m. (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.

Review: 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' finds joy in painful story 01/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 9:01pm]

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