Power trip

Posted July 3, 2024

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Mel Hammond, Isthmus

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom revived in the public consciousness in 2020 with the release of the Netflix film starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. But a better way to experience August Wilson’s 1982 play is on the outdoor stage at the American Players Theatre this summer.

Directed by Gavin Dillon Lawrence, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows celebrated blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and her four-piece band through a recording session in a 1927 Chicago music studio. Ma herself is an hour late to the session, leaving her band members to rehearse, swap stories, and wait in the basement while Ma’s white manager and a record executive grow more and more anxious upstairs. The audience grows anxious too (in a good way), waiting for the appearance of the show’s titular character.

Despite Ma’s absence for the first 45 minutes of the show, the musicians’ banter carries the story along, surprising audiences with both hilarious and poignant moments. (Take care if you’re sensitive to racial slurs — some audience members expressed surprise at the number used.)

Though the play does revolve around the Mother of the Blues, another star of the show emerges in the basement: a young, temperamental horn player named Levee (Nathan Barlow).

Levee does not get along with the older, more measured members of the band: Cutler (Lester Purry), Toledo (Chiké Johnson), and Slow Drag (Bryant Louis Bentley). Unlike them, Levee has big dreams of writing music and recording with his own band. Music executive Sturdyvant (Brian Mani) even promises Levee that they’ll record his original version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — if Ma ever arrives.

The visual hierarchy of the three-story set, made to look like a Chicago recording studio, mirrors the power dynamic among the show’s characters. The band members remain stuck in the basement, trading anecdotes from their lives that mirror the show’s theme of white supremacy and Black exploitation in the music industry. When Ma Rainey (slated to be performed by Greta Oglesby but played by understudy Dee Dee Batteast on opening night) finally does arrive — arguing with a white police officer who doesn’t believe she owns her own car — she spends the show on the main level of the stage, representing the power she holds over her band members downstairs. The white men in charge spend their time on the highest tier of the stage — in the control room — figuratively and literally exerting dominance over the whole operation.

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