Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Mark Taper Forum

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

“Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom!” This intro to the song from which Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gets its title helps set the stage for the 1982 play by August Wilson, currently being presented by Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is part of Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, a series exploring the African American experience in the twentieth century. Set in Chicago in 1927, it is actually the only play of the ten to not take place in Pittsburgh. The very contained story unfolds over the course of one afternoon in a recording studio, where Ma Rainey (Tony winner Lillias White), a singer commonly referred to as the “Mother of the Blues,” is set to record her latest album. 

Much of the first act consists of the others involved in the recording session waiting for Ma, who is late, to arrive. The uptight, impatient studio owner, Sturdyvant (Matthew Henerson) is constantly berating Ma’s long-suffering manager, Irvin (Ed Swidey), insisting he must ensure the day goes smoothly. Amongst Ma’s band, even more drama is unfolding. The three older band members, Toledo (Glynn Turman), the pianist, Cutler (Damon Gupton), the trombonist, and Slow Drag (Keith David), the bassist, are immediately and fundamentally at odds with Levee (Jason Dirden), a young, ambitious trumpeter who has a short fuse and aspirations of starting his own band. When Ma finally arrives, the day only gets more intense—she had a run-in with a police officer (Greg Bryan) on the way to the studio, which Irvin must smooth over, and certainly knows how to get what she wants. It’s quite obvious the recording session will happen on Ma’s terms or not at all. Making matters worse, she brings along her friend, Dussie Mae (Nija Okoro), whom it turns out is very familiar with Levee after an encounter at a club, and her nephew, Sylvester (Lamar Richardson). Ma intends for Sylvester to record the vocal intro to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” one of four songs they are set to record, and is completely unconcerned by the fact that he stutters rather badly. 

The music, arranged and directed for this production by Steven Bargonetti, is a true highlight, to the point where I almost wished there was more of it. Act two, when Ma and the band finally buckle down to record the songs, almost felt a little rushed, despite containing the meatiest, most anticipated material. The cast, however, was truly phenomenal, and everyone got a moment to shine. The versatile Mark Taper Forum always impresses me with its ability to be nearly unrecognizable from one production to the next due to the wide variety of sets it can accommodate—here, the set is essentially three levels, with a recording booth, the main studio floor, and the band’s rehearsal room. The plot is really quite simple, and more than anything, this play is an extended conversation about race relations and the effect they have on religion, as well as on power differentials in the music industry at the time. 

In a world of #OscarsSoWhite and troubling statistics about diversity, or the lack thereof, in popular culture and media, Center Theatre Group has done a phenomenal job of choosing plays that not only serve as an outlet for diverse voices and performers, but encourage a real conversation about race. In 2013, Phylicia Rashad, director of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, another play from Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, which featured much of the same cast and creative team. Earlier this year, they also presented Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, and 3, an exploration on the lasting effects of slavery and true meaning of freedom. This play is no exception—one of the most memorable scenes is a monologue Levee delivers about a heartbreaking, shocking event from his family’s history, and how it shook his faith in a higher power because he feels that if God truly cared about black people, such horrors would not happen again and again. For a play written over 30 years ago and set nearly a century ago, too many themes still ring true. 

While the plot that unfolds almost feels like an afterthought compared to the larger issues discussed, a shocking twist at the end left myself and many others in the audience gasping. Some may find the many scenes consisting of lengthy, dense philosophical discussions to be meandering, but in the hands of such a talented cast, they rarely come across as such. David, Gupton, and Turman, who possess an overwhelming number of stage and screen credits and accolades between them, were the standouts, bringing real wisdom, humanity, humor, and musical talent to their characters. On opening night, the crowd was on its feet before the lights even rose for the curtain call, marking this play as a must-see.  

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs at the Mark Taper Forum through October 16th. Tickets range from $25-85 and can be purchased at Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.