Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“The sooner you understand it ain’t what you say, or what Mr. Irvin say… It’s what Ma say that counts,” says Cutler, who plays guitar and trombone and is the unofficial leader of the band. The Ma he is referring to is Ma Rainey, and the argument is over which version of a song she will sing in August Wilson’s seminal Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, currently being presented by Short North Stage as part of a year-long festival of Mr. Wilson’s works.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Of course, the play isn’t really about music – it’s about power, and in a time and place like Chicago in 1927, being black and female would normally place one near the bottom rung in the pecking order of the day. Ma Rainey is no ordinary woman though, and she knows that she has something that Irvin, her white manager, and Sturdyvant, her white record producer, want desperately, but she’s going to make them work for it. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about the rehearsal and recording session for the song of that same name; her trumpet player, Levee, has written a new arrangement for the song, but Ma Rainey is not a woman who is about to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and that includes doing a favor for the pushy Levee. The rest of her band is ready to follow her lead, but Levee feels that siding with Irvin and Sturdyvant against Ma will put him in their good graces, enabling him to embark on a career of his own. 

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“They don’t care nothing about me,” Ma confides to Cutler. “All they want is my voice. As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.” Ma knows that she holds all the cards but that her power is transient; when all is said and done, she’ll be dismissed until she is needed again. This is why Ma Rainey has demands she makes sure are met; it’s not just for her, but for all of the people who don’t have a voice to command the same kind of respect for themselves. In the same position, wouldn’t we all play up the opportunity to throw our weight around before the clock strikes twelve and the coach turns back into a pumpkin again?

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say… As long as he looks to white folks for approval… Then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about. He’s just gonna be about what the white folks want him to be about,” Toledo, Ma’s piano player, wisely tries to explain to the hot-headed and ambitious Levee, though it’s a lesson Levee must learn the hard way. This is a time when segregation is still strictly enforced, and even up north, where the social situation is far more open, black people are still regarded with skepticism and a side eye. It’s enough to make anyone restless and frustrated, something with which
people who have been subjugated be it for their color or sexuality or some other reason can surely relate; remove “colored” and “white” from Toledo’s advice and it still rings true. This might be a “black play,” but its story about the disenfranchised and repressed is universal. The characters live in a time when racism is pervasive in a way that could make many complacent – but not Ma Rainey or Levee, one fighting quality which they both share.

So much of the play is spent with Ma’s band as they discuss and argue about life, all the while waiting for Ma to make her appearance and then be ready to record. The band members discuss women, money, philosophy, and even their ancestors in Africa; their conversation flows so naturally (a credit to Mr. Wilson’s genius) that it isn’t immediately apparent the relevance it will all have in the play. It’s during all of this that the audience gets to know and care for the characters as real people; we all become invested in how the session is going to play out because we get to know these people and how they think. This makes the startling finale all the more heartbreaking, a perfect demonstration of the misguided aggression that can result from broken promises and shattered dreams.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

As directed by Mark Clayton Southers, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a tight drama with enough genuine laughs and tense moments to feel thrillingly real. Mr. Southers doesn’t allow any of August Wilson’s spry dialogue to be tossed about or sped past; everyone in the cast gives the appearance of being united to tell this story without sounding too precious or studied. It’s a landmark work, but this fine cast thankfully doesn’t tiptoe around the material; many of the characters aren’t exactly endearing or likeable, but that’s completely beside the point.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Standouts in the cast are Wilma Hatton as the persnickety but in demand Ma Rainey; Chuck Timbers as Cutler, the voice of reason in the band; Will Williams as Toledo, the pianist who knows a little bit about most everything; Taylor Martin Moss as Sylvester, Ma’s stuttering nephew; and Ryan Kopycinski as the policeman who just can’t quite believe Ma Rainey could own a car or is as important as she claims.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

The real treasure though is to be found in Bryant Bentley’s performance as Levee, the bullish trumpet player who is as uneducated as he is blindly ambitious. Mr. Bentley takes a character who often rubs people the wrong way and makes him unexpectedly sympathetic; we understand why he is the way he is, and we want him to find some measure of success because we can see that he wants it so badly he can taste it. Levee’s disillusionment is felt by the audience all because of Mr. Bentley’s commitment and instinctual quickness; his performance rises to be the equal of this material, a daunting feat indeed.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

One could quibble about the prerecorded music and the fake playing of the instruments being handled in a way that is less than optimal, but Short North Stage’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is so alive and otherwise involving that it is futile to deny its charms and power. This is the second work of August Wilson I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this year. Mr. Wilson is hailed as one of America’s foremost black playwrights, though I think the qualifier is unnecessary; August Wilson is one of America’s foremost playwrights, period, and his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not to be missed.

**** out of ****

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues through to June 19th in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/536

Quiet Peninsula (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

Imagine if, instead of being about a young boy who could see dead people, the surprise ending of The Sixth Sense was the entire point of that film. Rather than being an additional “ah ha!” moment that supplemented the plot, such a change would mean that the other hour and a half of the film would’ve just been filler that would only be clear at the very end. That’s basically what is to be had with Brandon Ferraro’s Quiet Peninsula, a play with three separate stories that share links that are only fully apparent at the conclusion, currently being presented by MadLab through to December 19th.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Chad Hewitt (David) and Michael Moore (Walter)
 
The three stories that comprise Quiet Peninsula all take place at the same time on one night in Detroit; the first is about two cops who await the fate of a citizen one of them accidentally shot; the second has a man pleading with his vegetative father to add him back to his will; the third features a basketball player being held from participating in his school’s game because of a serious allegation. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be any connection between each of the stories; when the pieces start to come together, it still doesn’t add up to all that much anyway. Director Audrey Rush stages each scene with minimal set pieces and props on a stage with circular designs everywhere. Symbolic overkill? Nah, it doesn’t feel like it, but then again the play doesn’t feel like all that much of anything. At least it is never boring and keeps a steady pace towards the denouement, if it could be called that.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Sheree Evans (Lauraine) and Kathryn Miller (Jess)
 
Two performers stand out as being particularly effective: Sheree Evans as Lauraine from the first story, and Taylor Martin Moss as Bryan from the last. Ms. Evans has a way of managing silence that makes her despair all the more real, saying so much with just a look; she switches with frightening ease from joking about being a lesbian to being distraught over accidentally shooting an unarmed teenage boy. Mr. Moss exudes energy and strength as a basketball player just aching to get back into the game; his strong presence nearly levels everyone with whom he shares the stage. There is a moment near the end of his story when he makes a candid remark so flippantly that I held my breath in anticipation of what was to come next; what did follow came off as rather silly and poorly executed, but not because of Mr. Moss. I hope to see more of both Ms. Evans and Mr. Moss in the future as they have the rare ability of making the most of whatever material they are given and helping it to appear better than it is.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Nikki Smith (Kathy), John Kuhn (Derek), and Taylor Martin Moss (Bryan)
 
I usually enjoy the rather “off the beaten path” plays I see at MadLab, with Quiet Peninsula so far being the exception. None of the three stories in the piece are developed enough to forge any investment in the characters or their situations, though a few of the performers did stand out, making the seventy-five-minute running time more palatable than it would’ve been otherwise. There were several people around me in the audience that responded very enthusiastically at the conclusion of the play and during the talkback afterwards, but I wasn’t one of them.

** out of ****

Quiet Peninsula continues through to December 19th in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/quiet-peninsula.html