- Associate Toronto Theatre Critic
In the early 1980s, African-American playwright August Wilson began writing what would become known as his Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of ten plays —each set in a different decade of the 20th Century — telling stories about the Black experience in America. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tackles the 1920s. Ma Rainey was an early Blues singer who earned the title “Mother of the Blues” and who, decades after her death, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is mainly through Ma Rainey’s session musicians that much of the story of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is told.
In the wonderfully intimate atmosphere of the Michael Young Theatre, before the show even begins, time and place are instantly felt. Presented to you is a well-used, smoky recording studio in Chicago — a mixture of cool metal and warm wood with the appropriate accoutrements (happily worn upright pianos, a production booth with recording equipment, and a microphone stand instantly evoking the when of Wilson’s play). Ken Mackenzie’s set is so gorgeously lit and physically realized that you can almost hear the voices and music notes from past recordings resonating from the studio walls.
Ma Rainey’s band — Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, and Levee, played, respectively, by Lindsay Owen Pierre, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards, and Lovell Adams-Gray — arrive at the studio, ready to start recording. But Ma Rainey is late, so they decide to head downstairs to the rehearsal area. Between brief moments of rehearsal, the musicians break into chatter that starts out as trivial but develops into acidic humour and heated discussion. All the actors perform well, presenting distinct and clearly defined characters and motivations. Each has at least a moment or two where they grab your attention and shine.
And they’re all accomplished musicians to boot. Beau Dixon’s blues piano playing is almost worth the price of admission on its own. However, it is Lovell Adams-Gray, as the brash, young trumpet player Levee, who gives a performance that is nothing short of revelatory. Adams-Gray portrays Levee with a cocky, gleeful abandon, gushing with rapid-fire dialogue about his own talent and success one moment, and aggressively pushing the buttons of his fellow musicians the next, all the while protecting the tortured soul that lies beneath the bluster. To watch him shift the audience from howls of laughter to awed silence in a single moment is astonishing.
Towards the end of the first act, the title character finally shows up, with her entourage in tow: her girlfriend, Dussie Mae (played with coquettish aplomb by Virgilia Griffith) and her nephew, Sylvester (a marvellously understated performance by Marcel Stewart). Alana Bridgewater perfectly embodies the soul of Ma Rainey. She is an explosion of energy, passion, and power, injecting a boost of electricity to the proceedings. She commands any room she walks into, can leave anyone frozen with her icy glare, and can melt any heart with her soulful voice. While Rainey at first comes off as a diva, we quickly come to understand her desperation to gain as much as she can for herself before the white people making money from her talents toss her aside after getting what they want.
The ugly, destructive nature of racism is ever-present in this piece, told through disturbing stories of the past, and seen in the hostile behaviour and dismissive attitudes of the white characters. Even the set is its own hierarchy. At the top, there’s the lofty production booth that is the domain of the two main white characters: the producer, Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros), and Ma Rainey’s agent, Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin), who make all the important decisions from their elevated position. At the bottom, there’s the rehearsal space downstairs, where the Black characters dream and plan and hope in a place that the white characters don’t care to inhabit. In the middle, we have the main floor of the studio. This is a place where the two races co-exist and the place where Ma Rainey resides, stuck in between — somewhere above the Black musicians downstairs, but never able to join the white men upstairs as an equal.
Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu’s direction has a wonderful musicality to it, with the cast moving about the stage in an almost hypnotic rhythm, and slowing to a stop when necessary, to great effect. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a great show with solid performances across the board that make it infinitely watchable.
The show’s run has been extended to June 9, 2018, at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, at 50 Tank House Lane in Toronto’s beautiful Historic Distillery District.
Showtimes are at 8 pm Monday to Saturday with some 2 pm matinees.
The show is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.
More details are available at www.soulpepper.ca.
Photo credit: L-R: Marcel Stewart, Virgilia Griffith, and Alana Bridgewater. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.