Revisiting a popular play in the ten work "Pittsburgh Cycle" from August Wilson, the Black Rep has put forth a superior effort. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is especially interesting to me as a musician since the focus is really on the interplay that goes on between Ma Rainey's band as they banter about various aspects of life and the music business, all while waiting for Ma to show up, or trying not to incur her wrath when she does. A terrific cast makes for an enjoyable, if tragic, ride that's well worth your time and attention.
Blues singer Ma Rainey is late for a session, as usual. As the engineers argue about her lack of punctuality, the musicians gather to go over the material for the recording. Now, this is 1927, so the recording is primitive at best, with two microphones acting as cutting edge technology to tracks that were usually cut live to a lacquer disc. But, the focus isn't on Ma so much as the goings on within the band. Cornet player, Levee is writing new songs and arrangements, some of which are being considered for the session, and there's an inner tension that develops between he and Toledo, the ever-buried-in-a-book, piano player. Skirting The Edges of this conflict and adding some of their own are trombonist Cutler, and bass player Slow Drag, who just wants to get the gig in the bag without any hassles. However, Levee has his eye's on Ma Rainey's niece, Dussie Mae, and his mind on how much money he's going to make with the new band he's putting together. Tensions escalate to a breaking point with unexpected violence the outcome.
Ronald Connor is very good as the headstrong Levee, determined to turn his back on a troubled past, and make a name for himself with his music. Ron Himes is excellent as Toledo, spouting words of wisdom at the drop of a hat, or at the youthful vigor displayed by Levee. Antonio Fargas is also quite good as the reefer smoking Cutler. He's obviously close to Ma, and he tries to reign in the upstart's enthusiasm to little avail. Erik Kilpatrick rounds out the band as Slow drag, who'd rather just keep the peace, tell a few lies, and pick up his money. jaki-terry is Ma Rainey, and she easily conveys an aging blues singer, who's going to take what few liberties she can because her manager, Irvin, nicely portrayed by Chad Morris, lets her.
A fine supporting cast includes: Evann Jones as Dussie Mae, Tom Wethington as Sturdyvant, Marcus Demus as Ma's stuttering nephew, Sylvester, and Aaron Markham as a policeman who wants to haul Ma in for her driver's recklessness.
Ed Smith keeps the direction taut and lean. The pace is ramped up pretty good as well, so that the overall effect of the ending comes as a true shock. Tim Case has conceived a delightful multi-level scenic design that neatly conjures up the period. Jim Burkwinkel's lighting is thoughtfully conceived and executed, and the costumes by Daryl Harris add authenticity to the surroundings. Katie Gray does fine work putting together Ma's colorful ensemble.
An engaging and thoroughly enjoyable show awaits your presence at the Grandel Theatre through May 13, 2012. The Black Rep has put together an exceptional production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.