Review: Memphis' Hattiloo Theatre presents 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

Racism roils beneath conflict in Wilson opus

Photo courtesy of Hattiloo Theatre
Valerie Houston (Ma Rainey) and Javin Peete (Sylvester) in Hattiloo Theatre’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Photo courtesy of Hattiloo Theatre Valerie Houston (Ma Rainey) and Javin Peete (Sylvester) in Hattiloo Theatre’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

(left to right) Mark Davis (Cutler), Shadeed Salim (Toledo) and Reggie Hinson (Slowdrag). Photo courtesy of Hattiloo Theatre

(left to right) Mark Davis (Cutler), Shadeed Salim (Toledo) and Reggie Hinson (Slowdrag). Photo courtesy of Hattiloo Theatre

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through March 17 at Hattiloo Theatre, 656 Marshall.

Tickets: $15-$25. Call 901-525-0009.

When August Wilson premiered his play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in 1982, he was just a couple of years away from becoming a Pulitzer Prize winner who would dedicate his life to chronicling the 20th century African-American experience in 10 major plays known collectively as “The Pittsburgh Cycle.”

“Ma Rainey” has all of Wilson’s signature ingredients: misunderstood characters, heartbreaking monologues that peel back layers of painful American history and scenes of casual camaraderie interspersed with explosive rage.

Since its founding, Hattiloo Theatre has dedicated itself to presenting one Wilson play each season. “Ma Rainey” is one of his most approachable works, set in a Chicago recording studio in the 1920s, where a group of musicians have gathered to accompany the blues singer Ma Rainey on a series of new records.

Ma Rainey, known as “The Mother of the Blues,” enters the studio late in the first act, accompanied by a police officer and in a foul mood. Her fiercely independent personality and uncompromising attitude chafe both the white recording engineer who sees her as an easy payday, and one of her black bandmates who thinks her music is getting stale.

Valerie Houston’s Rainey is imperious and demanding, showing gentleness only to her stuttering nephew and her female lover. When she finally belts the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” named after a bluesy dance, she may as well be describing the bottom that her critics should go ahead and kiss.

Meanwhile, in a rehearsal room, her four musicians struggle with compromises. The hot-headed Levee, played by Hattiloo founder Ekundayo Bandele, thinks he’s winning the white man’s game, emboldened by the engineer’s (Stuart Turner) offer to buy some of his jazzier arrangements.

But the older and wiser players Cutler (Mark A. Davis), Slowdrag (Regi Hinson) and Toledo (Shadeed Salim) know too well their roles in this white-run industry.

In Hattiloo’s small theater, the musicians sit practically in the audience’s lap. Director Lawrence Blackwell uses this closeness to draw out low-key performances.

Bandele plays Levee as a playful, if easily wounded, young musician whose terrifying encounters with racism as a child have left his temper with a short fuse.

In a purely dramatic sense, the conflict in “Ma Rainey” is a butting of artistic egos — the established artist insisting on doing things her own way versus the upstart artist trying to make a name for himself and change the world.

But as in all of Wilson’s plays, the real culprit is rooted in history. Racism is responsible for the pride, anger and distrust that ultimately pit Rainey and Levee against each other.

The staging itself is cramped. The tempo flags in parts. But Hattiloo’s production acquits the story well, gets laughs in the right places, and stands out as one of the company’s better efforts at celebrating Wilson’s legacy.

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