Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Beck Center

(Angela Gillespie-Winborn as Ma Rainey, helpfully covering her hideous dress with a feathered fan, and Robert J. Williams as Slow Drag)

Back in the 1920s, black recording artists were often used and abused, paid only piddling session fees for songs that continued to ring up strong sales for years. And the pain engendered by that royalty-free treatment forms the heart and soul of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now at the Beck Center.

Written by August Wilson, the script is rich in language but poses many challenges to the company of actors, since there is much repetition and many digressions that depart from the toothpick-thin plot. In this production, director Sarah May and her players get many of the characterizations right, but aren’t able to keep the pacing tight and the momentum moving forward. As a result, the already lengthy show seems to play half-again as long.

The premise of the play couldn’t be simpler. The volatile Ma, at the apex of her recording career, is scheduled to record the show’s title song with a four-man band. But she doesn’t arrive for the first hour, as the musicians kill time in the studio razzing each other and sharing stories about their sometimes funny, sometimes horrific past.

Finally, Ma shows up with her retinue which includes her shy and stuttering nephew Sylvester and young assistant Dussie Mae. Immediately, Ma starts throwing orders at the two white men putatively in charge of the session, producer Sturdyvant and her agent Irvin. They reluctantly accede to her demands but the trumpeter, named Levee, clashes with her over Levee’s arrangement of the “Black Bottom.” And that is the breach that ultimately leads to tragedy.

Playwright Wilson writes in jazz riffs, often employing repeated phrasings and improvisations on a theme (ie. “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”). And this requires actors who can ride those subtle tonal shifts without getting lost in the word weeds. The four musicians—Michael May as the mercurial Levee, Larry Arrington-Bey as placid trombonist Cutler, Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El as the intellectual, philosophizing pianist Toledo, and Robert J. Williams as cocky upright bass player Slow Drag—successfully shape those distinct characters. And there are moments, especially in their monologues, that crackle with energy.

However, due to some softness on lines and slack timing, there are also substantial stretches when it seems the show is drifting in circles rather than driving towards a conclusion. These are the times when Wilson’s repetitive phrasings seem more like careless typographical errors than an intentional layering of mood, as well as a desperate groping for answers. Without that foundation, the surprising denouement feels tacked on rather than profoundly inevitable.

Angela Gillespie-Winborn handles the attitude-heavy role of Ma Rainey well, although she is saddled with a horrific red gown (it’s a hot tranny mess) that bulges, drapes and stretches in unfortunate directions and at all the wrong places. But when she sings the blues, you feel the emotion and, for a moment, are transported.

Some small details also go by the wayside, as Deja M. Foster’s overly hip-twitchy Dussie Mae never seems like Ma’s lesbian bauble, which makes her flirting with Levee less fraught than it should be. And while Lawrence Seman and Michael Regnier huff and puff appropriately as Sturdyvant and Irvin, they don’t quite bring into sharp relief the omnipresent and often unconscious racism of the time.

It is to be hoped that, by settling into the run, these talented actors will be able to master their lines and timing, allowing the playwright’s jazzy mastery to shine forth.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Through February 22 at the
Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue,
Lakewood, 216-521-2540

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