August Wilson took the name of one of blues singer Ma Rainey’s songs for the title of his play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She’s a character in the play, but the drama isn’t primarily about her. (The Black Bottom was a dance created in New Orleans and popularized in the 1920s, but it’s not as well remembered as the dance craze it replaced: the Charleston). In Anthony Bean Community Theater’s production, Demitrus Wesley (Ma Rainey) delivers one of the show’s highlights when she sings the tune and adds her own playful dance.
Wilson’s Ma Rainey is a demanding woman, and to comic effect, she gives her manager a hard time with an unending series of demands. The drama takes place at a Chicago recording studio, and she insists that her nephew, who stutters profusely, record a vocal introduction to one song (and get paid the same fee as the session musicians). Damian Taylor is entertaining in the minor role as he rehearses and repeatedly gets hung up on the B’s in Black Bottom.
Much of the drama in Ma Rainey comes from the studio band, in which a trio of elder musicians butts heads with a young trumpeter named Levee (Sean Jones). He wants the band to use his arrangement of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and so does the band’s manager Irvin (Carlos M. Gonzalez). Ma Rainey wants to use a traditional arrangement, and she doesn’t let anyone tell her what to do.
Levee is an egotistical womanizer who can’t resist flirting with a member of Ma Rainey’s entourage. He also sees himself as an artist, and he writes off the elder musicians as a hapless and dated “jug band.” They are happy to do what the studio owner asks to get paid for the recording session, and they delight in watching a suddenly humble and solicitous Levee try to ingratiate himself to the studio owner, who is white.
The exploitation of black musicians is just the beginning of the racial issues explored in the play. Jones was passionate when delivering a long monologue about Levee’s horrific childhood memory of being unable to defend his mother from an assault by a group of white men. Unfortunately, on opening night Jones struggled at times with Levee’s frequent heated outbursts and tirades. Harold X. Evans (Slow Drag) and Wilbert Williams Jr. (Cutler) were funny and poised as the more circumspect veteran musicians. It’s a challenge to find actors who can double as studio musicians, but the use of prerecorded music wasn’t always sharp, and the play calls for frequent interruptions and restarts.
Wilson’s award-winning play offers a nuanced and often funny look at changing times and inequality. Levee can only imagine being able to control his career in the way Ma Rainey does. Alfred Aubrey offered a seasoned handle on piano player Toledo’s mix of historic insights and offbeat sociology. With its shop talk and studio debates about music as art and business, it’s a work well-suited for local audiences.
With this production, Anthony Bean Community Theater completes Wilson’s decade-by-decade 10-play suite chronicling African Americans in the 20th century. It’s a worthy installment in an impressive mission to present the works of a great American playwright.
Thru. Sept. 29
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun.
Anthony Bean Community Theater, 1333 S. Carrollton Ave., (504) 862-7529