Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Compelling production mixes drama and comedy to highlight the fate of black musicians in the 1920s
Copyright 2019: The Celebrity Front Page. Entertainment Information in Chicago. All rights reserved.
Kelvin Roston Jr., Alfred H. Wilson, A.C. Smith and David Alan Anderson are Ma Rainey's musicians, and (below) Peter Moore and Thomas J. Cox are at the center of the chaos.
Chicago-favorite Felicia P. Fields stars as the iconic Ma Rainey and leads an extraordinary cast in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at Writers Theatre.
WHEN Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1982, he probably didn’t imagine anyone on stage who is more the embodiment of Ma Rainey than Chicago-favorite Felicia P. Fields. In the production at Writers Theatre through March 17, Fields, like the real Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, is strong, commanding, a take-no-mess kind of woman who is serious about her craft and all that goes with it.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the first of Wilson’s 10 plays in his ambitious American Century Cycle, documenting the African American Experience through every decade in the 20th century. Set in 1927, it is the only play in the Cycle that’s set in Chicago and paints a vivid picture of what African American musicians had to face in an industry that routinely took advantage of their talents.
In this play, Wilson chose to highlight the activities surrounding a recording session that can’t begin until the unpredictable Ma Rainey arrives, raising the level of anxiety for Irvin (Peter Moore), her white manager, and Mr. Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox), the white owner of the record company. Previous experiences have shown that Ma, described by some as “the mother of the blues,” has her own schedule and always shows up whenever she’s ready. As she says, “We go when I’m ready to go. And that’s how it go.” After finally arriving, Ma is determined to have her way, showing everyone around just how demanding she can be.
Much of the play is focused on Ma’s four-piece band while they wait for her arrival and after the recording session begins. Fields leads a versatile and powerful cast, comprised of a group of noted actors who are among the busiest and most popular on the Chicagoland theater circuit. Both drama and comedy are evident during the banter that characterizes the band, which includes A.C. Smith (Slow Drag), Alfred H. Wilson (Cutler), David Alan Anderson (Toledo) and Kelvin Roston Jr. (Levee), a talented, innovative trumpet player and songwriter. The temperamental and sometimes volatile Levee, who has had enough of butting heads with Ma, has the idea of creating his own band, and one of the most important steps toward accomplishing that feat is to sell some of his newly written songs for a fair price to Mr. Sturdyvant, the record company owner.
Roston is exceptional in his role as Levee, whose interactions with Mr. Sturdyvant is representative of what black musicians routinely experienced in their dealings with white music executives. Rounding out the cast are Jalen Gilbert (Sylvester), Tiffany Renee Johnson (Dussie Mae) and Blake Montgomery, the policeman who Ma strongly urges to refer to her as “Madame Rainey.”
Perhaps no one in the director’s chair interprets Wilson’s work better than Ron OJ Parson, who knew and worked closely with the playwright during a stint at the Goodman Theatre. Additionally, the Buffalo, N.Y., native and graduate of the University of Michigan, has been associated with Wilson plays more than 20 times as either a director or actor. Parson, who has a reputation of not stifling an actor’s passion, brings all of that knowledge and sensitivity to this production. Further, his spontaneity serves him well as the actors navigate scenic designer Todd Rosenthal’s three-level set, with the top level occupying the recording control booth, the main level set up for the musicians to play, and the lower level is where the band rehearses and trades good-natured barbs until they sometimes become a bit heated and physical.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, not only focuses on the strength of Ma Rainey to defy the status quo and to do things her way, but it also presents an illuminating slice of life that’s a haunting portrayal of racial oppression that was the norm during the Roaring Twenties. Additionally, Ma Rainey is a welcome reminder of the incredible talent that playwright Wilson showcased during his effort to capture and effectively highlight the African American Experience.
Tickets are priced $35-$80. Subscriptions and individual tickets may be purchased online at www.writerstheatre.org, by phone at 847-242-6000 or in person at the box office at 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe.