Show Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ at the Mark Taper Forum

By Keri Tombazian

No matter how many shows we take in, my husband Thom and I arrive at any given opening night of theatre filled with anticipation. Sunday night we were bursting for August Wilson’s masterpiece of words and music: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The play itself, produced on the formidable Mark Taper stage, endowed with a cast of proven artists held promise enough, but the promise was supercharged with witnessing Phylicia Rashad work her considerable gift. And work it she does, digging deep into Wilson’s third chronological installment of his ten-play Century Cycle. Rashad brings with her several actors from her critically acclaimed 2013 Mark Taper production of Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Smart Lady.

Raising the bar like an Olympian breaking a world record, Rashad reached a heightened depth of understanding of both the actual music in the play and the lyrical movement of the dialogue, giving no preferential treatment of either the spoken or sung words, elevating both to one complete, glorious song. It’s as if Wilson’s spirit whispered all the secrets of his play into her ear, imbuing her with superpowers of understanding.

It is a rare thing when all the elements of a night of theater come together in such synchronicity as to be above criticism; but here we are. Had she not the Taper’s devotion to Wilson’s work and her learned cast, perhaps Rashad’s vision would have languished. But each element, from design to sound, to scenery all work together making one of the most powerful nights of theater in recent Taper history. I was so moved at intermission, I sent out a tweet from the ladies room.

Set in 1927, Chicago, Ma Rainey (Lillias White) keeps record producer, Sturdyvant (Matthew Henerson) and manager, Irvin (Ed Swidey) waiting while the clock ticks and the band assembles in the rehearsal room to tell tales, argue about the white man, music and God, rehearse Ma’s tunes, and wrestle with demons. No spoilers here; each moment of the story, so specifically crafted, deserves to be seen in real time from a seat at the Taper, at the feet of these artists.

Damon Gupton is the very bedrock of the ensemble, just as his character, bandleader Cutler, is the rock of Ma’s band; steady handed from his funny Act I banter to his sober last line. David Keith (Slow Drag) is generous and easy, never upstaging his fellow actors with his considerable skill, instead, letting his familiarity with truth drive his performance. Gupton and Keith have devilish fun together.

Levee (Jason Dirden) simmers with wounds from a violent past and rages against the oppression that keeps him down. Dirden holds back nothing as he chokes with such stripped down desperation audience members squirmed.

Glynn Turman, whose turn as Toledo, the old piano player and self appointed sage of the band, is the stuff that awards and careers are made of; an absolute lesson in timing, charm, and funny.

Lillias White storms the stage as Ma Rainey, rattling the nerves of her manager and everything else in her wake. Sassy, bossy, and beautiful, White sings and shakes and, like magic, gives the Mother of the Blues her day on the stage.

Lamar Richardson depicts Ma’s stuttering nephew, Sylvester, with remarkable fidelity; Nija Okoro is sexy and conniving as love interest Dussie Mae. Rounding out the cast are the likeable Ed Swidey, Matthew Henerson as the just despicable enough record producer, and Greg Bryan bringing up the rear as the cop.

August Wilson’s art is his enduring act of activism. With each character, each story, Wilson rips away swaths of the veil that once obscured the circumstances of Blacks in 20th century America; and each time his plays are produced, another shred falls away. His writing never shies away from the shocking truth of the circumstances, but always finds comedy and humor in the characters. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom begins in laughter and ends with a gasp.

Do not miss this gem running through October 16th. Tickets on sale here.

Postscript: Make a note to read the biography of two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, multiple New York Drama Critic Circle Award, Tony award winning, father, brother, son, and American treasure, August Wilson; his life is worth knowing.

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