August Wilson’s towering Ma Rainey

 Recording history
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  October 2, 2013

NO MORE HOLDUPS Belting out rage, sorrow, and strength. | Photo by Aaron Flacke

The singer Ma Rainey (Tina Fabrique) is arriving any minute, in the first scenes of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The famed diva and her band are about to throw themselves into a rocky Chicago recording session in August Wilson’s blues-rich comedic drama, the 1920s installment of his ten-play American Century cycle of plays about the African-American experience. Portland Stage Company presents an arresting production of Wilson’s superb script, in which delays, struggles over creative control, and the sharing of tales make for a fraught recording session.

Ma’s white manager Irvin (Tom Bloom) and white studio executive Sturdyvant (Tony Reilly), along with her four band members, wait for her. And even once she arrives, with her daughter Dussie Mae (Nyahalé Allie) and big, stuttering nephew Sylvester (Winston Duke), things keep getting held up: Ma is detained by a cop (Corey Gagne), she refuses to sing until a Coca-Cola is fetched, and a bum microphone renders a perfect take unusable. In the meantime, Sturdyvant and Irving try to appease her and bustle tetchily up in the windowed sound booth. Ma holds court in the wood-paneled studio, flanked by strutting, swaying Dussie Mae (sweet like a smooth liquor in Allie’s hands) and awkward Sylvester in his new purple suit (Duke is beautifully subtle in how the young man inhabits his clothes, at once proud and insecure). Meanwhile, down in the concrete-gray basement rehearsal room (set design of all three rooms is excellent), Ma’s four musicians joke, reminisce, and spar.

Although Fabrique’s terrific, sassy, scarlet-fringed Ma is the title gal (as well as a hell of a singer) it is her musicians, superbly cast and acted, who are the heart of Wilson’s story. To Irving these guys are simply “the boys,” and as far as Ma’s concerned, they’re just there to do her bidding. But these four are extraordinarily different men, with highly varied, highly charged views about music, book-learning, religion, and the black man’s survival among whites:

Cutler (Harvey Blanks, knowing and watchful), the bandleader and trombonist, is pragmatic and long-suffering, and has been making the circuit for a long time with bassist Slow Drag (Ray Anthony Thomas, with generous warmth and humor), a simple, earthy man with a superstitious streak. Then there’s Toledo (Kevin T. Carroll, nicely balancing comedy, exasperation, and rage), who in spectacles and clod-hoppers is the intellectual of the group, with the most modern sense of race
consciousness. Finally, much younger than the others, is Levee (the breathtaking Warner Miller), an ambitious, charismatic young trumpeter in an electric-blue suit who, to the amusement and irritation of the rest, insists upon their session music as art, not just a gig and a check.

The session progresses, histories are told, and grievances are aired — including tales of men signing away their souls with a bloody fingerprint; commiseration on the uneasy race relations of the music industry; the story of when white men forced a black reverend to dance for his life; and more personal revelations — these four actors build an exquisitely wrought tension between rancor, rage, and camaraderie. In short, PSC’s production of Ma Rainey is a must-see, a triumph of character and rapport. Its actors constellate the era’s complexities of black identity with humor, humanity, and a haunting power. And it’s all in the idiom of the blues, which, as Ma contends, helps you survive what brought them where you are.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom | by August Wilson | Directed by Jade King Carroll | Produced by Portland Stage Company | through October 20 | 207.774.0465 |

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