Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson’s Essential Chicago Masterpiece, Sings at Writers Theatre

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom ensemble. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

August Wilson famously tackled the entirety of the 20th century with his poetic works of human tragedy and mythic resilience. Wilson’s plays like to live in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood where the playwright lived for the first 30+ years of his life. The exception is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the blues-infused second installment (and first to be produced on Broadway) of Wilson’s 10-play cycle, taking place in a Chicago recording studio. It is a beautifully written and deeply moving portrayal of music, ambition, and suffering in the 1920s. Director Ron OJ Parson, with his new production at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, manages to strike a chord between maintaining reverence to the late great playwright’s historic text, while breathing new life into the play’s lingering and renewed indictments.

Ma Rainey was a real person, billed as the mother of the blues, and was one of the first artists to record these songs. In this production she’s played with magnetic defiance by Felicia P. Fields. But, the real focus of the piece are her session musicians, gathered together in the rehearsal room of the Chicago studio to immortalize Ma’s voice onto disc, including the titular tune. Ma is late, and the quartet are deposited in the basement of the church-turned-studio until she arrives. There’s aging trombonist Cutler (Alfred H. Wilson), easy-going bassist Slow Drag (A.C. Smith), intellectual piano player Toledo (David Alan Anderson), and cocksure trumpet player Levee (Kevin Roston Jr.).

Levee knows he stands to gain something from the white studio heads, and he positions himself carefully to rise above his rank. He has been writing new songs that embrace the music of the day, and has even penned a modern arrangement of “Black Bottom” for the band to record. When Levee first comes on stage, he is complete with a pair of new, cream and blue dress shoes, of which is he is boyishly proud. Roston brings a tremendous energy to Levee, dancing through the play with ambition aching to be set loose. Toledo is a bit more conservative in his approach. He wears a traditional African cap, philosophizes about how the black man must work towards his own betterment, without sacrificing where he came from, and is dedicated to playing the music as it was intended to be played–Ma’s way. There’s a central tension between these two–situated squarely in the middle is Ma herself: she’s managed to find the sweet spot, maintaining her individuality and dignity, while not acceding ground–and this rivalry allows Wilson to dizzyingly explore the black experience through debate, camaraderie, humor, pathos, and magnificent monologues. (The cast here are practically licking their chops when tackling these poetic flourishes.)

When Ma finally arrives, she does so with her nephew Sylvester (Jalen Gilbert) and lover Dussie Mae (Tiffany Renee Johnson) in tow, under the watch of a white policeman. Ma has gotten herself into a fender bender, and her white manager, Irvin (Pete Moore) is set to deal with the fallout. He’s uniquely positioned as well to bounce between the worlds of the black musicians and the white recording engineer Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox) who is beyond frustrated with the events of the day. The clock is ticking, and money is wasting, but Irvin is dedicated to maintaining the peace between his artists and the record company.

At first Irvin’s intentions seem pure, but Ma is wise to the prejudice at play. As the story pitches on, it becomes increasingly clear that Irvin views his job as mainly getting paid, and is only babysitting the no-nonsense Ma until her voice is recorded, after which he has little patience for her. Wilson gives Ma Rainey that understanding through a beautifully direct bit of text–she has something the music execs want, and they will deal with her only as long as she has something to give them. It both gives her power and allows her to see how truly tragic her circumstance is. She is all about the music, she has been singing the blues since she was a child; now that’s it’s profitable she is catered to and spotlighted. But she will never be viewed as an equal.

Ron OJ Parson has assembled a stellar ensemble, several of these guys previously appeared in the Writers Theatre production of East Texas Hot Links, and that sense of brotherhood works wonders. There isn’t a wasted performance on this stage–I was particularly moved by Ma’s stuttering nephew Sylvester, lovingly portrayed by Jalen Gilbert. It’s a small role, but there’s such defiance, such heart in the young man’s presence, you can’t help but understand everything about him from the moment he enters.

The sound, designed by Ray Nardelli (actors go through the motions of playing their instruments, but the music comes from speakers positioned throughout the space), is warm and excellently realized. When Felicia P. Field’s Ma finally bellows the famous number, it is a showstopping moment that feels even more alive and immediate given its placement late in the play. And Todd Rosenthal’s set is a gorgeous example of spatial storytelling; it at once feels authentic in its details of a recording studio, and, with the sound booth positioned high in the sky above the rehearsal pit, confronts us with the infuriating hierarchy of our original American sin.

August Wilson’s plays demand to be heard; there’s a musicality to his dialogue, and a real weight to the experiences essayed by his characters. There’s something that feels particularly Chicago about these plays; of course this one is in fact positioned in Chicago, and Wilson’s plays were often tried out here before heading to New York. (2003’s Gem of the Ocean even premiered at the Goodman–that theatre has staged all 10 plays at least once.) But Chicago actors and directors, with their hearts laid bare, with their workaday commitment, with their gut-punch humor and endless enthusiasm, manage to mine something uniquely prescient from Wilson’s work. I felt that when I saw Congo Square’s Jitney last year. And I certainly felt that during the standing ovation after Ma Rainey’s tragic finale. Parson and his cast at Writers have done this titanic work real justice, in a production filled with as much joy and sorrow as the Blues itself. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has a runtime of 2.5 hours, with one intermission, and plays until March 17 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. Tickets are $35-$80.

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Matthew Nerber
Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.