THEATER REVIEW: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” @ Karamu by Roy Berko

August Wilson

Through Sun 10/31

August Wilson, the author of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is now in production at Karamu, America’s oldest African American producing theater, is known as “theater’s poet of Black America.”

Wilson is best noted for a series of ten plays, collectively called The Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicle the experiences and heritage of the African-American community in the 20th century. Several of the plays in the series, including Ma Rainey, won Tony Awards.

Written in 1982, the play is set in a recording studio in Chicago in 1920. It deals with issues of race, the attitudes of Blacks toward Whites, religion and the historic exploitation of Black recording artists by white producers. Ma Rainey was a real-life performer, known as “The Mother of the Blues.”
Despite its title, which refers to one of Rainey’s signature songs, this is not a musical. It is a play with incidental music.

“In a Chicago recording studio in 1927, Ma Rainey’s band players Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag and Levee gather to record a new album of her songs. As they wait for her to arrive they tell stories, joke, philosophize and argue. Tension is apparent between the young, hot-headed trumpeter Levee, who dreams of having his own band, and veterans Cutler and Toledo.” This tension culminates in a startling ending which mirrors the Black/Black self-destruction often seen on the streets of many major cities.

The cast is excellent. Jaris Owen is seething as Levee, a young trumpeter and composer, who mirrors the rage of the young Black man, feeling he is being held back and psychologically abused by the white musical establishment, as well as by the “don’t make waves” older Black musicians. His “rage” speeches and eventual acting out, vividly screams out as the voice of the real or perceived oppressed.

Cornell Hubert hits the right notes as Cutler, the older Black orchestra leader, brought up in the Negroera of being subservient to the rules of White America. He “shuffles” through life doing what he needs to do in order to not set off waves.

Christina Johnson presents a Ma Rainey who has learned that she has a talent that is needed by the White music producers, which gives her the ability to demand the Coca-Colas that she requires, sing the arrangements she wants, and drag along the entourage that she desires. She both looks and sings like the living legend.

The Karamu production, under the direction of Justin Emeka, is framed by a wonderful set and era-correct costumes. The show’s missing element is the use of recorded music rather than having the onstage actors play their instruments.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a well-written, well-performed play that grabs and holds the attention. The author, August Wilson, as is his usual manner, brings a strong spotlight onto the plight of the Black population in America. This is a production well worth seeing. (Side note:  The theater is chilly. Be advised to bring along a sweater or jacket.)

Also be aware that masks are to be worn at all times at Karamu, regardless of vaccination status.  Upon entry all patrons must show proof of vaccination reflecting 14 days since the second/final dose or evidence of a negative PCR molecular or antigen COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of arrival.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs October 7-31 in the Jelliffe Theatre.  For tickets go to  karamuhouse.

[Written by Roy Berko, member: Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association]

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