Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By August Wilson

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Directed by Ron OJ Parson

At Court Theatre

Powerful saga of African-American life in the 1920’s unfolds as a tragedy

August Wilson’s second work of his Century Cycle, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is the only play not set in Pittsburgh–it is set in Chicago. We meet two white men–one a record recording producer, Sturdyvant ( Thomas J. Cox) and Irwin (Stephen Spencer), Ma Rainey’s manager as they ready the studio for a recording session of the famed blues  singer. John Culbert’s fabulous four-level set aptly depicts a 20’s recording studio.

cast of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - V

The band–Cutler (Cedric Young, Toledo (Alfred H. Wilson), Slow Dog (A. C. Smith) and Levee (James T. Alfred) are rehearsing in the band room waiting for Ma.  As they wait for her to arrive they kid, joke, tell stories,  moralize and argue. As the play unfolds it becomes obvious that  tension exists between the young hot-headed trumpeter Levee who has dreams of having his own band and veteran players Cutler and Toledo. Levee is young, impatient and determined to get his share of life’s pie while the older musicians are content not to make waves with the whit man. Wilson weaves the rage that Levee and the older men have inside them through enlightening and often funny stories and reminiscences.  Wilson’s gift for both storytelling and for blending dialect with poetic language is a marvel to hear. In the hands of such terrific actors  as Young, Wilson, Smith and the intense and deeply emotional James T. Alfred, August Wilson deftly presents the 1920’s pent-up rage experienced by African-Americans with a tragic doom.

The recording session becomes a battle of wills with Ma Rainey and her agent and the recording engineer.  Ma Rainey demands things her way out of respect for her status as a major blues artist and as an independent African-American woman.  She knows that she sells records and that the white men only see her as a money making machine, not as a person.

Alfred and Young -V

Greta Oglesby is fantastic as the strong-willed blues singer. The production features some terrific 20’s blues tunes as well as powerful performances. James T. Alfred carries the weight of all African-American rage as he self-destructs near the end. This powerful drama is filled with telling stories and realistic attitudes of the period. August Wilson’s place in American as a serious playwright was established with this excellent work.  Court Theatre and Ron OJ Parson sure know how to mount worthy productions of Wilson’s work.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

At Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL, call 773-753-4472, tickets $32 – $56, www.courttheatre.org, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 pm, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission.