For years you could measure the difference between the Huntington Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater as the difference between August Wilson, the gritty and lyrical chronicler of African-American life, and Robert Wilson, the avant-garde auteur. So it takes you a bit aback to see former ART regulars Thomas Derrah and Will LeBow on the Huntington stage as the late playwright's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom gets under way (through April 8).
The bad news for Derrah and LeBow is that August Wilson gave white characters about as much detail as Woody Allen has given black characters. And the bad news for everyone else is that this early Wilson play is his weakest, written before he found the right balance of rap sessions, character development, and dramatic action. Ma Rainey completes the Huntington's traversal of Wilson's 10-play cycle of African-American life in the 20th century, one set in every decade. This one goes back to the 1920s and was technically the second play written by Wilson, though one can argue that it's really the first, since the version of Jitney that was performed at the Huntington and elsewhere had been rewritten.
And the playwright's inexperience shows. The characters are undeveloped, the action is static, and Wilson's rage at white racism is much balder than in later plays. It's hard to say what's cause and what's effect here, but this is also the least charismatic ensemble of black actors the Huntington has assembled for a Wilson play. Charles Weldon is the only member of Ma's band who sports the typical Wilson swagger. Joniece Abbott-Pratt as Dussie Mae, "Ma's woman," is also something special, but it's a minor part. Jason Bowen's Levee, arguably the most important character, comes close, but his performance hadn't really taken off by last Friday's press night (delayed by the Back Bay blackout).
The play takes place in a Chicago record studio where the dyspeptic record company owner (Derrah) and Ma's nervous manager (LeBow) await the singer while her band trades stories about music, lovers, and about how black men should carry themselves in a country where white men rule. This is the Wilsonian mix that would take flight in later plays, but here it's only sporadically humorous or moving — you mostly wish they'd stop talking and play. (The music is prerecorded, but expertly synched.)
There's also the sense that Ma's arrival will set things right, but it only makes matters worse. Again, it's hard to say whether the fault is Wilson's, actor-singer Yvette Freeman's, or director Liesl Tommy's. (Tommy also directed last season's Ruined by Lynn Nottage.) Ma becomes the most unlikable of all the characters — an egomaniacal diva resistant to change and so stubborn that Derrah's exploitative executive seems pitiable by comparison. Her insistence that Levee's trumpet intro be replaced by her stuttering nephew's spoken lead-in makes her look more foolish than compassionate.
At the heart of the matter is Wilson's love of the blues and what it represents about African-American striving, suffering, community and transcendence. Freeman's Ma conveys that in word — "This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and fill it up with something." But her singing lacks the grit of great blues singers.
It's up to Levee to square all the themes about music, life, and exploitation. How Wilson has him do it will either leave you quaking or wishing he had used a less obvious metaphor for the effects of racism. After this came Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. That's when Wilson really learned to sing the blues.