APT's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' goes behind the blues

Posted July 9, 2024

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Lindsay Christians, The Cap Times

Before the music starts in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Levee struts into the recording studio holding sharp new two-tone leather wingtips.

“Now I’m ready!” Levee, a brash young trumpeter, says as he puts them on. “I can play some good music now!”

Changing styles, signifiers of wealth and the way money works — or doesn’t — across race and class simmer under the music in this, the second installment in August Wilson’s “Century Cycle.” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” runs at American Players Theatre through Sept. 7.

Written in 1982 and set in 1927 Chicago, “Ma Rainey” centers on the title blues singer’s “accompaniment band” who’ve been touring with Ma around the south. Ma’s bawdy, danceable blues — the “black bottom” was the 1920s equivalent of a TikTok trend — aren’t popular in Harlem yet.

But she’s made the white owners of the recording studio quite a lot of money in Memphis and Atlanta, and Ma uses that fact to demand a minimum of decent treatment from them.

“They don’t care nothing about me,” she says. “All they want is my voice.”

Embodied here by the extraordinary, empathetic actor Greta Oglesby, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was a real singer, known as the Mother of the Blues. Oglesby’s Ma has a way of speaking, clear and firm, that makes a person lean in. She understands her business. She has no need to shout.

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