Caustic and brilliant, August Wilson nails down the realities of racism in his plays. They are as revealing, humane and in-your-face as they are graceful, funny and entertaining. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, at the Denver Center Theatre Company, is a masterful piece of theater, competently mounted and performed with moments of glistening intensity and silken poetry.
The story unfolds in a Chicago recording studio in December 1927. Ma Rainey, the famous blues singer, is expected to record one of her most popular numbers, a dance tune called "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Her white manager and black band show up long before she makes her appearance. As the band goes off to rehearse, the white owner of the recording company, Sturdyvant, and the manager, Irvin, fuss about Ma's attitude. When Ma finally arrives, her prima donna demands seem unreasonable, if amusing. It takes a while to learn that there is a reason behind her performance--that desire we all share for basic human respect. She knows she is being exploited for her talent. She knows she is despised for the color of her skin. But she nevertheless will demand to be treated the way she wants to while she can--they need her voice to sell their records.
But the play isn't really about Ma Rainey. It's about the four musicians in her band. Toledo, the pianist, is a self-educated man who has begun to realize the importance of his African heritage. He speaks intelligently of the need for the black community to come to terms with its true identity. Dignity and an earthy wisdom accompany nearly everything he says when he speaks of the future of his people. It is Toledo who understands how the black man has been relegated to history's "leftover" status. He is the most compelling personality because he is the most complex and fully realized of all the characters.
Pitted against Toledo is young LeVee--brash, uneducated, angry, and yearning for life to begin. He doesn't understand Toledo's circumspect vision. He wants action. In fact, both men want the same thing.
LeVee is also a bright and talented trumpet player who has been promised a shot at recording his own music--newer, jazzier than Ma's. He wants his break. But he has seen too much. He understands from terrible experience how oppression works. At one point he rails against God, who he believes did not protect his mother from rape or a certain Reverend Gates from humiliation at the hands of white men. He believes God hates black men, and so the threat of hell means nothing to him: He lives there already.
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Cutler, on the other hand, believes in God and cannot bear the blasphemy on LeVee's lips. But even though he is a Christian, he would damn another soul for angry words. He is a good man, smart and sensitive, but he doesn't see the irony. Slow Drag, the mellow sensualist, plays the foil--and the cello--with wit and style. The forces at work in the story--racism as a way of life among the whites, and blacks in constant struggle to survive because of it--play themselves out in the troubled characters. The normal struggle between young and old is magnified and distorted by the shared fate of racist repression. Ma hinders LeVee's rebellious attempt to rise as an artist. Toledo calls him a fool too often. But it is the white man, Sturdyvant, who precipitates the tragic end of the play with his betrayal. The cast is terrific. Ann Duquesnay as Ma Rainey is a marvelous singer. She gives Ma the power to move like a steamroller over those who try to push her around. Her authority convinces us that Ma knows where her art comes from (the heart) and what it is for ("The blues is a way to understand life"). Reg Flowers as LeVee is another powerful performer, alive with passion, convincing and smooth. Roger Robinson as Toledo gives an amazing, layered performance, full of exquisitely timed comic moments and intelligence. In fact, all four band members, with Anthony Chisholm as Slow Drag and Charles Weldon as Cutler, play off each other like members of a fine quartet. The white guys are really good, too.