There might come a time when "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," August Wilson's searing look at race and culture in 1920s Chicago, will seem to be a curious relic without contemporary relevance. Don't count on it.
Center Stage's trenchant new production of the 1984 play happened to open during a week when fallout was still floating from recent pronouncements by two Southern governors: one in Virginia who didn't mention slavery when proclaiming "Confederate History Month" because he was focusing on the "most significant" issues for his state; and one in Mississippi who said that the resultant controversy surrounding his Virginian colleague was a case of "trying to make a big deal out of something [that] doesn't amount to diddly." So much for the post-racial age.
As with the other plays in Wilson's celebrated series on the African-American experience — a hallmark of contemporary theater — "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" cuts through the immense issue of racism to expose truths and fictions, the good and bad angels in us all. The late playwright's flair for capturing the language of real people with real pain and real hopes gives his work a rare and powerful immediacy. We might be made uncomfortable by what is said (the n-word flies freely) or what happens, but we cannot be unmoved.
In "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the lessons are laced with brilliantly layered humor, and the laughs come so easily in the Center Stage production that the inevitable sting of tragedy hits a deeper nerve.
Set in the milieu of a Chicago recording studio, where Ma Rainey is to commit some more blues songs to posterity, the play focuses as much on the legendary singer as on her band — three long-experienced musicians and a younger player determined to get ahead. The dynamics in the rehearsal room provide much of the work's highly combustible fuel.
Framed by walls bearing titles of Ma Rainey classics, the evocative scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez, expertly lit by Rui Rita, allows for easy flow of the action, directed with a keen eye for detail and an effective mix of tension and momentum by Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis. (On opening night Wednesday, a few hesitant moments in the delivery were easily forgotten, given the performance's overall strengths.)
E. Faye Butler is a powerhouse as Ma Rainey, the "mother of the blues" trying to get the most she can from a segregated music world, even if, sometimes, that means no more than a 5-cent Coke. Whether blasting out demands at a volume likely heard in Dundalk or cooing to her girlfriend, Dussie Mae (played vividly by Toccarra Cash), Butler commands the stage. She looks right at home in the fancy flapper dress (Candice Donnelly designed the finely detailed costumes) and she offers confidently styled singing, too.
With equal force, Maurice McRae conveys the naiveté, brashness, wicked humor and defiance of the ambitious trumpeter, Levee, who doesn't want to be "satisfied with a bone someone throws you." It's a riveting portrayal. As Toledo, the piano player who becomes Levee's nemesis and a startling voice of social and historical perspective throughout the play, Thomas Jefferson Byrd shapes his lines with a deliberate phrasing that produces a poetic music of its own.
David Fonteno brings vibrancy and stature to the role of Cutler, the trombonist who tries to keep the band on track. Ernest Perry Jr. finds telling layers of comic and sensitive nuances in the role of Slow Drag, the amiable bass player. Ro Boddie offers an endearing performance as Ma's stuttering nephew Sylvester. Laurence O'Dwyer, as the record company owner Sturdyvant, and Merwin Goldsmith, as Ma's manager Irvin, both seem a bit stiff and obvious; they may find more nuance as the run continues.
Whether reveling in off-color humor or turning the tables with profound questions about bigotry and violence, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" remains a work of startling imagination and impact, and Center Stage's production gets to the heart of the matter in affecting style.