Friday, April 6, 2012

August Wilson's bottom line

August Wilson was a playwright absorbed in his people's history; and now, of course, he himself is a part of that history (he passed away in 2005).  This melancholy fact, coupled with the knowledge that Ma Rainey's Black Bottom represents (roughly) the starting point of the playwright's life work, his ten-play saga now known as the "Century Cycle," brings a poignant emotional weight to bear on the production currently on the boards of the Huntington (but only through this weekend).

The fact that this Ma Rainey also represents the completion of the Huntington's own commitment to staging Wilson's entire cycle only seems to up the artistic ante.  Watching the close of this production is like watching the curtain of time descend on ten different plays and nearly twenty-six years of effort (the theatre staged its first Wilson play, Lloyd Richards' production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, in 1986; I remember it well, but were some of the stars of the current show even born then?).

So let's just say that watching this new version of Ma Rainey put me in mind of what my father used to call the Long View - and it also re-enforces the impression that at the end of vast artistic endeavors, you sometimes end up precisely where you started.  That is if you haven't actually lost some ground.  For has anyone come along to take up August Wilson's mantle?  Do we have a young black playwright - or a young playwright of any color or gender - of Wilson's size, scope, or sympathy?

Oh, let's be honest - we don't [although local playwright Kirsten Greenidge will take her shot next week with Luck of the Irish].  I don't mean to make exorbitant claims for Wilson; the familiar rap against him is one I agree with (in fact it's one I've helped shape): he was never much for structure, perhaps not even for story, particularly as he aged; his plays became ever more digressive and discursive; in some of the late ones, in fact, all you can count on are a few stretches of spectacular oratory.  Since Ma Rainey is at or near the beginning of this arc, it's more coherent than some of the cycle - which probably peaks in the middle  period of Joe Turner and The Piano Lesson - but you can feel here, at the very beginning, the buds of the flaws that would eventually fully flower by the cycle's end.

Still, in that mysterious way that a great dramatic voice somehow makes itself known despite its own failings, in Ma Rainey, Wilson's writing slowly coalesces into a deeply moving statement.  The play has little forward drive, it's true - it's a meandering look at a group of black musicians conjured around the real-life "Ma Rainey," (who did have a hit with the song "Black Bottom" - although she only had supporting vocals on the record - and was a notable figure in gay history as well as black history due to her open lesbianism, which Wilson treats matter-of-factly).  Ma and her long-suffering band are attempting to make a blues record for a white recording company, although this proves a daunting task, given the demands of the recording studio and Ma's own penchant for drama.  Thus the play is a tapestry of racist humiliations, large and small, as well as private conversations and debates, petty power plays and exploitations - and one shocking outburst of violence.  But remember Stephen Dedalus' conceited claim that "in the smithy of his soul" he would forge "the uncreated conscience of his race"?  Well, August Wilson seems to have gone Joyce one better, I'd argue.  For from the panoply of voices arguing in Ma Rainey, a mosaic of communal frustration and consternation does slowly emerge; a vision of a race unshackled, but still in chains, and furious at both its oppressors and itself for its desperate condition.  Yes, the title of the play is a naughty double entendre, but it's a deeper pun as well - what exactly, August Wilson asks, is the bottom line for my race, my people?

Jason Bowen in a break-out performance .
And it's here, I think, that the playwright towers over today's polemicists in the ongoing wars of identity politics.  His characters struggle not only with their victimization but also with their seeming impotence before it; they interrogate themselves as well as the power structure.  This, of course, is terribly incorrect to today's P.C. mandarins; but it's one of the means by which Wilson transcends politics and achieves the status of art instead.

I'm not sure, actually, that the current production always understands that - well, I'm sure the actors do; but director Liesl Tommy has framed the action with odd flourishes, in which rap blares from the sound system, and the cast briefly stares at us in contemporary dress.  I wasn't sure how to take these asides - but of course what leaps out at you from them is how black music - like the rest of pop music! - has collapsed catastrophically in quality, falling from the free, sweet lyricism of jazz, gospel and the blues to our current modes of squalid crudeness.  In a way, of course, Wilson predicted this; his characters muse that as racist power structures harden and age, the resulting anger from the black community will slowly poison, even strangle, our popular culture.  So perhaps Tommy intends her framing as mournful acknowledgment of Wilson's prescience - I don't know.

But I don't feel that elsewhere Tommy has cast Wilson in the best light possible - even though in its richness and maturity this production marks a return to form for the Huntington (after two recent misfires).  Still, here we feel the clunk of just about every bump in Wilson's script (when a director like Lloyd Richards might have disguised the smaller gaps - maybe Tommy's not all that great at structure either).  The director's most troubling misstep is her seeming lack of attention to the slowly burning fuse that does, eventually, ignite at the play's conclusion.  But she has drawn highly detailed performances from almost everyone in her superb cast, and she has coaxed a star turn from our own Jason Bowen, who here joins the ranks of local actors who have made the jump from local stages to the big time in a splashily convincing way (another reason why the Huntington is our leading theatre, and remains so valuable).

And those performances are reason enough to catch Ma Rainey before it closes.  Yvette Freeman makes a formidable Ma - she perfectly captures the mix of resentment, defeated realism, and diva-worthy theatrics that Wilson intends; and though she doesn't sing in quite the cadence of her historical namesake, she still lights up "Black Bottom" with a frisky, earthy joy.  (The music here, though synched to taped performances, is highly convincing.) And while Jason Bowen may provide the fireworks for the musicians' backstage scenes, he never obscures the fine detail of the performances around him, from the distinguished trio of G. Valmont Thomas, Charles Weldon, and Glenn Turner.  Newcomers Joneice Abott-Pratt and Corey Allen likewise shine as very different members of Ma's entourage - one her slinky latest squeeze, the other a stammering nephew who Ma poignantly insists (with some raw symbolism) deserves a place on her record.  Meanwhile, as the racist record producer Sturdyvant, Thomas Derrah all but disappears into his role, and made me completely forget about his recent preening in Red.  I was surprised that only Will LeBow seemed to lack specificity as Ma's manager Irvin; he was adequate, but there is, I think, far more to this role than he has yet found (at least by opening night).  But overall, there's a richness to this ensemble that you won't find anywhere else in town right now.

So if you can't tell, I left Ma Rainey's Black Bottom once again moved by August Wilson's achievement.  I certainly hope this final installment of the "Century Cycle" won't be the Huntington's farewell to this great playwright - because frankly I think we need him now more than ever.

Glenn Turner, Will LeBow, G. Valmont Thomas, Jason Bowen, and Charles Weldon await Ma Rainey.


  1. It was my first encounter with this particular play, and I have to agree with you that there was something about Wilson's script that the cast, for the most part, grasped well, but the director seemed to miss. If anything, the hip-hop segment at the opening-- simply because it was a needless indulgence that neither shed light on Wilson's themes nor established a contemporary reference point with which any audience member wasn't already familiar, only demonstrated how tone deaf Tommy's direction could be at times.

    (Let me also add that on the night I attended there was a segment of the audience, mostly represented by the hip young moneyed professionals that the Huntington's promotion of #tweetseats was intended to attract, who had absolutely no clue on how to conduct themselves inside a theatre.)

  2. Oh, don't get me started again on the whole audience thing! It's not just young people - it's everybody, I'm afraid. Theatre is designed to operate as a shared statement in a communal space; the continuous violation of that space during performances indicates just how desperate the art form's prospects have become. I don't think many audience members are even aware that they themselves are part of the performance, and that it is intended not as a solitary consumable but as a SHARED experience. These are perilous times.

  3. I also had the following interesting e-mail exchange with a reader over this production:

    After reading your take on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, I’m curious about your feelings of what I thought was a very contrived ending (stepped on my shoe; murder), which you don’t seem to mention in your review, unless your line “The director’s most troubling misstep is her seeming lack of attention to the slowly burning fuse that does, eventually, ignite at the play’s conclusion.” Of course, that doesn’t answer my thoughts on the contrived ending feeling I got.

    I replied:

    I agree the ending of "Ma Rainey" is somewhat contrived, but I feel clever direction could soften that sense of contrivance. There are ways to remind an audience of Levee's investment in his appearance and style during the course of the show, which Liesl Tommy didn't do; nor did she (or Jason Bowen) seem aware that at first Levee's flashy clothes are the outward emblems of what he imagines is a rising career; once he is stripped of those illusions, they become all he has left - and then his philosophical nemesis goes and ruins his shoes. . . I know it's contrived, but it can feel more like an arc than it did here. I didn't discuss this too directly because i also feel Wilson does want to shock us a bit with the sudden violence - we don't want to anticipate it, or quite see it coming. But we should be able to look back and see that it was bubbling beneath the surface all along.