Dark underside

August Wilson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning plays Fences and The Piano Lesson. In producing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the Plowshares Theatre brings to the stage a compelling revival of Wilson’s first major drama, which depicts the exploitation of blues legend Ma Rainey by white music studio bosses. The beginning of his cycle documenting African-American life in each decade of the century, it’s an important play, both culturally and artistically, and as relevant today as when it premiered in 1984. (The latest in the series, King Hedley II, about the ’80s, debuted on Broadway last week.)

The title, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, refers to the lyrics of a sexually suggestive song. But it’s intentionally and intriguingly deceptive, cleverly withholding from the audience the sheer power of the play’s tragic conclusion. Rather than focusing on “Ma” Rainey (1886–1939), the Georgia-born blues singer who came to be known as the “Mother of the Blues,” the play revolves around her fictional band of black musicians, uncovering their stories more than hers.

Set in 1927, the play opens with the musicians — Toledo, Slow Drag, Levee and Cutler — awaiting the diva’s arrival in a Chicago recording studio. The banter between the four, in dialogue written with the depth of perception characteristic of Wilson’s work, develops slowly and beautifully. There is volatility here. And vulnerability. There is latent hostility and open antagonism. Optimism and desperation. And complacency.

The tensions center around provocative questions of race, identity and masculinity. As black entertainers making a recording for white businessmen, the band members cope with the effects of racism and oppression in very different ways.

When Levee, the trumpet player, shows off his spit-shiny pair of fancy red-and-white shoes, he invites friendly ridicule from his friends. But deeper conflicts between the band members are lurking. Throughout the play we watch as anger at white oppression is turned inward and against each other. In the second act, it builds in a startling, bitter crescendo.

Directed by Janet Cleveland, the production is intelligent, well acted and engaging. Cleveland has an indisputable eye for detail. Christopher Carothers’ confident set design merges form and function. The city-scape backdrop is a subtle work of art that adds immeasurably to the handsome stage picture.

Jill Courtney Chenault does an admirable job as Ma Rainey. She speaks in a commanding, low voice that rings true. Unfortunately, when it comes time to sing, Chenault seems to lose a bit of confidence. By 1927, Ma Rainey had decades of experience performing in minstrel and vaudeville shows — the Black Bottom number should be a gutsy explosion at the center of the play.

In fact, the music in general is the one element of the production that doesn’t quite measure up. For the most part, instead of live instruments, we hear recorded sound clips. It’s an understandable choice, but there’s a disappointing flatness to this approach. By the end of the play, we crave the sounds of a live piano, bass and trumpet.

The exception to this is the live guitar played on stage by the character Cutler, a role performed here by “Mississippi” Charles Bevel, the co-creator and featured artist of the Broadway musical It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, which received several Tony Award nominations in 1999.

The cast is strong overall, but Brian Marable as the brash, swaggering Levee is a standout. It’s a treat to see such a carefully developed character played with such sensitivity and sincerity.

The play would falter if the actor playing Toledo were weak. Luckily, Plowshares cast the outstanding James Bowen. As the world-wise Toledo, Bowen gives a strikingly understated performance, bringing wit and charisma to the role that is absolutely crucial to the ultimate devastating impact of the play.

Audrey Becker writes about books and theater for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]