When August Wilson’s scorching drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom made its New York debut in 1985, it was just the second non-musical show authored by an African-American to receive a Broadway production. You had to go back almost four decades, to 1959, to find another black playwright (Lorraine Hansberry) whose work (A Raisin in the Sun) had inspired enough confidence among (mostly white) theater investors to earn the big-budget Broadway treatment. Though both writers were passionately motivated to document the myriad daily consequences of injustice, Hansberry and Wilson are nonetheless very different artists. While she preferred to examine how institutional racism steamrolled the fragile ambitions of ordinary black people, he viewed anti-black bigotry as a more insidious psychological force that fermented and then infected African-Americans like a virus, turning them against one another and themselves. No knock against Hansberry and her iconic status in African-American literature, but Wilson created vibrantly alive characters who were rawer, more simultaneously charming and infuriating, and more tragic on a grand Shakespearean scale.
The challenge of mounting an August Wilson script can be summarized as: How does a director effectively dramatize the learned politics of self-loathing that Wilson’s characters find themselves mired in? Jubilee Theatre artistic director Tre Garrett, who often credits Wilson for inspiring his love of theater, has an intuitive feel for the electric power of subtext and slow boiling resentments that are unspoken but eventually acted upon. Garrett’s version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, currently selling out performances at Jubilee, has all of the spontaneous, lovingly chaotic, and unsparingly mournful qualities of a classic Wilson staging. You may not admire the hard-drinking, womanizing, sermonizing session musicians who gather in a 1927 Southside Chicago studio to cut several sides for the hit-making blues singer Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett. But you won’t be less than engrossed in their epic conversational entanglements, which cover everything from religious faith to racism in the North versus the South to how much a successful, self-respecting black man should pay for his shoes.
Typical of a recording session for the tyrannical Ma Rainey –– “That’s Madame Rainey!” bellows actor Valerie Houston, correcting anyone who doubts the singer’s regal status –– the sidemen spend a lot of time standing around not playing, waiting for Rainey’s entourage to arrive and then sitting through her many breaks and demands. The piano player Toledo (Dennis Raveneau) is the default sage of the group, an avid reader who philosophizes about the surreal quasi-citizen status of black people in a legally segregated America. Standup bassist Slow Drag (Jerrold Trice) is the sweet, bear-like appeaser and negotiator who often finds himself intervening in the musicians’ disputes. Horn player Cutler (Selmore Haines III) worries that record label owner Sturdyvant (Gary E. Payne) will, true to form, cut him another rubber check for an afternoon’s session work with Rainey. Levee (Adam A. Anderson) is the handsome young composer who dreams of leading his own band and escaping the “jug band” sound of old-fashioned blues for the flashier rhythms of jazz. His eye wanders to a gorgeous, giggly young chorus girl named Dussie Mae (Kenneisha Thompson), which is unwise, to say the least –– Dussie Mae belongs to Ma Rainey, a very “out” lesbian who, like the real-life Ma Rainey, jealously guarded her harem of young female performers. As in many Wilson plays, the various thematic strands that at first seem arbitrary come together in ever more explosive encounters among desperate characters.
Director Garrett has guided his marvelous ensemble into delivering the dialogue with an overlapping, improvised feel reminiscent of the controlled chaos that Robert Altman bottled so nicely in his best large-cast movies. In the Jubilee staging, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom evokes the claustrophobia, boredom, and endless rivers of conversational bullshit that have flowed through recording studio green rooms since the world started turning. But because this is August Wilson, time and place are merely vehicles to carry the playwright’s concerns about the peculiar existential compromises experienced by black people in America. There’s no post-racial happy ending in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, just a lot of smart, tough-minded riffing on the sadly divided worlds that still reign in this country.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Thru June 8 at Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main St, FW. $18-25. 817-338-4411.