Shadow Theatre's last celebratory opening took place over a year ago, when then-artistic director Jeffrey Nickelson unveiled the company's comfortable, brand-new theater to a throng of elegantly dressed well-wishers. The show was Dinah Was, and though it featured the magnificent René Marie in the title role, both script and production were weak. At last week's opening of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, refreshments were again served in the lobby, and artworks graced the small gallery. But the throng was smaller and less jubilant. The company has been through a difficult year: Nickelson has resigned and veteran actor Keith Hatten taken over the company. Still, if the party was more subdued this time, the artistic payoff was far stronger.
It's hard to go wrong with August Wilson. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, first produced in 1984, is the play that propelled him to fame and brought comparisons with such twentieth-century giants as Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill — though it seems to me his genius outshines theirs by several magnitudes. Ma Rainey has everything that makes Wilson great: eruptions of humor, rage, pettiness and affection, all given resonance by a broadly humanistic sense of history. The action takes place in 1920s Chicago where Ma Rainey, mother of the blues, is about to record her signature song. Her four backup musicians gather at the studio to bicker, joke, eat sandwiches and rehearse. One of them, Levee, has ambitions of his own and wants to move the music into a new and jazzier direction. Meanwhile, Irvin, Ma's white manager, sets up for her, overseen by irascible studio owner, Sturdyvant.
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Wilson illuminates the world of these blues musicians and their struggles within a white culture that values their artistry but not their personhood. Irvin's condescension and racism may be unconscious; Sturdyvant's aren't. The musicians' coping mechanisms are highly individual, and they take a spiritual toll. Though Wilson's anger is clear, there's nothing didactic about his work; his story is told with subtlety, indirection and humor. Swathed in fur, refusing to perform until she receives her ritual Coca-Cola, raging at Irvin and venomously putting Levee in his place, Ma Rainey is as petulant a diva as you can imagine — at least with the white characters. With her stuttering nephew — who, she insists to hilarious effect, will provide the spoken intro to her song — as well as with most of the musicians, she's kindly and reasonable. We soon realize that terrorizing her manager is pretty much the only real power she has: Despite her stardom, she can't even get a taxi outside the studio.
The script has a discursive, slice-of-life feeling, as if we were simply watching people interact; the focus, as always with Wilson, is on language and storytelling. The plot is a little more straightforward than those of some later Wilson plays. Almost every one of the jazz-accented monologues brings the story forward in a specific way; there's less of the playful music-for-music's-sake noodling around that happens later, and almost none of the quasi-mystical or crazed philosopher stuff that makes some Wilson plays sink right into your psyche and rearrange your thought patterns. The obvious forerunner of the eccentric everyman-philosophers who populate the Pittsburgh stories is Toledo, with his talk of molecules and history.
Wendelin Harston brings a hunched, stomp-footed, raw power to the role of Ma Rainey, and Keith Hatten turns in a tour-de-force performance as Levee — vulnerable, filled with brooding rage, and often oddly and naively funny. It takes a few minutes for the actors playing the other musicians to find their rhythm, but when they do, the atmosphere they create is electric: Joe Wiggins calm and peaceful as Slow Drag, Donahue a humorously wonkish Toledo, and Jimmy Walker shining in the quietly complex role of Cutler. Erica Lyn Cain is a sexy little minx as Ma Rainey's lesbian love interest, Joseph Jones does a great job with nephew Sylvester's dumb stubbornness, and Brett Scott, with his perfect comic timing, actually makes us feel sorry for the much-abused Irvin.
Hatten has said that once Ma Rainey is over, he will not perform in Colorado again, but focus on running the company. This strikes me as a huge mistake. Where this production soars, it's frequently because of his talent. Depriving audiences of it puts one more obstacle in the path of this shaken company.