“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – Arizona Theatre Company

This review aired on KBAQ November 15, 2010


Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

A powerfully moving Arizona Theatre Company production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” provides graphic insight into bigoted American race relations in the early twentieth century.

The play is the first of Wilson’s ten part series that eloquently traces the African-American experience through the last century’s evolving decades. This one explores Rainey’s career in 1927 as a major blues singer.

It’s set during a Chicago recording session with the arrogant, shrewd, knowing, and demanding Rainey. She won’t let whites lord it over her. Through the interactions of her four-person band Wilson demonstrates how blacks were “leftovers from history” unfairly treated by money-grubbing whites. It shows how even belligerent blacks kowtow to whites to advance.

Even when lied to by whites, black frustrations are unleashed against each other but not at the people who take advantage of them. Equality will take years and Wilson suggests that black Americans still haven’t achieved full acceptance. The play also includes some soulful blues singing, including the title tune, during the actual recording sessions.

Wilson’s rich characters see their situations plainly. Ma knows how good she is and how much she brings to whites whom she forces to tolerate her idiosyncrasies. Her agent, Irvin, is a manipulative user who knows Ma’s worth but won’t defend her. Sturdyvant, the record producer, is brought to reality when his successes with Ma are detailed. There’s even an interesting implication about Ma’s sexuality with the introduction of her companion Dussie Mae. Finally, the ever-changing relationship between the four band members show how the opinionated Toledo, her piano player, Slow Drag, her bass player, Cutler, her leader and trombone player, and Levee, her smart-aleck trumpet player, express growing irritation during the session. The play’s dramatic conclusion reveals the extreme level of black dissatisfaction.

Lou Bellamy’s outstandingly taut and tight production is a masterpiece of thoughtful dramatic buildup. Not only does he allow the action to develop naturally, the carefully evolving tension among the characters is distinguishing. The play’s central role is not Ma but Levee. In James T. Alfred’s simmering and seething performance, the play’s focus remains on him. No less brilliant is Jevetta Steele’s Ma. She makes the character’s understanding clear in an impressively dominant performance that is aided by her excellent vocals. The other musicians are distinctively etched as are the agent and record producer.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” exposes the miserable plight of black Americans within a tightly woven story that typifies ‘20s societal norms. This masterful production continues through November 28. For tickets, call the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 602-256-6995 or go online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: A