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Pure Life Theatre Company kicked off its two-week run of August Wilson's first published play from his Century Cycle, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, on September 15. The only play of Wilson's situated outside of his hometown of Pittsburgh, here we are carried to a 1927 Chicago recording studio.
The director, Ron Foreman, and set designers, Wendell Scott and Deb Royals effectively pull off the setting for the power struggle with the past and aspirations for the future sifted through race and identity, which the cast compellingly projects. The side-by-side placement of the studio and basement setting allows for a tug of war to unfold between the musicians and the production of the recording. This setting and process was in the early era of record production and the growing popularity of Black music on vinyl. The real dilemma is in how a signature music history moment and madam will be convincingly delivered – voices, instruments, and all.
Enter the White record producer and Ma's "manager" who immediately work to establish their roles in the cultural robbery about to ensue. Larry Evans brings a seasoned history of acting to a polished and complete Irvin, living in the manager's subtle and calculating desire to control Ma and the evening's session. Thom Haynes as record producer Sturdyvant was insidious enough, yet he delivered lines from front center stage out to no one in particular at times. This placed him strangely outside the narrative flow of the performance.
The door located truly off to the left side of the stage should get cast credit. Everyone makes their entrance here (including the audience), and every time they do, they are in groups that come on with a banter as they escape the cold to no avail. The musicians do this, instruments in hand, with their individual cadences. Trombonist and bandleader Cutler (played with commanding, wild abandon by TJ Swann) comes in with a quick step ready to get down to business and rehearse before the session. Followed by bass hustling Slow Drag (Warren Keyes, who has performed in two previous Wilson plays, The Piano Lesson and Radio Golf). Keyes has a memorable presence and played Slow Drag as an agreeable cat who just wants to get the session done and be gone.
Toledo and Levee are the central problem children who can't leave each other alone. Thomasi McDonald has also been cast in several Wilson plays before, Fences, Jitney, and Gem of the Ocean. He, as Toledo, idled into the studio and around to the basement, wary and sage-like. Ajani Kambo'n (Levee) breezed into a slow building with a "world owes me something" posture, filling the stage with his character's pridefulness. Both actors have a natural penchant for playing the dozens, or worse, as if they grew up together fighting with far worser words.
The real roof raiser is the arrival of Ma Rainey, played by Emelia "Me-Me" Cowans. She and her entourage come in followed by a police officer (Dylan Bailey). She is accompanied by Dussie Mae, her attendant/lover (glowingly played by Moriah Renee Williams) and Sylvester, a young nephew (played by teen actor of note Quinn Michael Gray). The studio plays out as a battleground for control – manager and producer versus Ma, Levee versus everybody except the White guys.
Levee wants everybody to face the music that times are changing, blues giving way to jazz. Battles over this playout, especially over the song "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." The instrumentalists are presented fingering the instruments with tracks not played loudly enough to energize the passions of blues or jazz lovers. This was also the case with the live singing of Warren Keyes. An inner volume button was turned up in him periodically. But oh boy, when Cowans sang, you could hear it loud and clear. She defined for us several times the reason Ma Rainey is the "Mother of the Blues."
With support of producers Deb Royals and Verlene Oates, there are greater passions and prowess revealed in how director Ron Foreman hits the high notes of Wilson's genius as he privileges Black storytelling so centrally in this production. Each of the principals, Ma and band members, reveal deep truths of the Black experience in America, traumas and triumphs.
McDonald's strong suit as a storyteller was on full display as Toledo relates tales of African Americans' "Africanness" and how he once had a church wife. Swann's Cutler danced us through how Slow Drag got his name and how Reverend Gates danced his way from the Klan. Kambo'n delivered Levee's pain in losing his father. And then there was the quiet delight of Cowans' Ma Rainey revealing the power she has in dealing with White folks. Foreman has them staged in a manner to make you want to sit right down and listen a spell.
Kudos to costume designers Julia Gainey and Jennifer Ijeoma for the '20s period suits and shimmy-shaking dresses. Special excitement was conjured up through Williams' Dussie Mae as she worked that red velvet overcoat, that hairstyle, and the stage. It's all to be seen and heard, but most importantly understood as a powerfully honest slice of Black life.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom runs through Sunday, September 24. For more details, please view the sidebar.
ADVISORY: Adult language is used throughout the show.