Sunday, February 01, 2009

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

‘MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM’ doesn’t hit all the right notes at Beck

A woman sitting next to me at the opening night of Beck Center’s ‘MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM,’ by August Wilson, turned to me at intermission and said, “When’s the music going to start? Isn’t this a musical? The answer: Don’t go to see ‘MA RAINEY’ with the assumption that it is a musical. It is a drama with some music.

The play centers on a recording session in which Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett Rainey, better known as Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” is recording a “new” edition of her music.

Though the title of the play makes one believe the central character is Rainey, in fact, the main character is Levee, a trumpet player. He is determined to make a name for himself in the world of music and intent on altering Rainey’s never-changing “jug band” style. When Levee finally gives his compositions to the white studio owner, he is given a pittance for them. This lack of respect by a white man for a black man, sets a series of events into action which brings the play to a shocking ending.

Wilson, who became famous after ‘MA RAINEY’ was awarded the 1985 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, was noted for writing “black dialogue” as Blacks actually speak it, complete with using language in which the “coloreds” called each other the “N” word and are often pictured as prejudiced against each other as whites are. He continued in his plays to illustrate that “Racism was no joke.”

Whether the story is true or not is open to conjecture. Rainey was a private woman who only gave one recorded interview. It is known that she was married to vaudeville singer, William "Pa" Rainey, had an unknown number of children, and was openly bisexual.

The Beck production, under the direction of Sarah May, is well staged, but on opening night did not appear to be ready for “prime time.” Many lines were dropped, cues were not picked up, the pacing was languid, and most performers did not have clearly developed characterizations. Many of the ideas were sometimes hard to understand due to a combination of poor articulation and lack of projection.

The musical aspects of the play were lacking. The attempt by cast members to “fake” the playing of the band instruments, which was obviously being performed off-stage, was not successful, adding to the lack of believability of the performances.

Though Angela Gillespie-Winborn has a nice voice, she did not display the intensity and style that captivates audiences like the real Ma Rainey was capable of doing. She often feigned characterization by using set gestures to play with her hair, making faces rather than experiencing emotions, and lost concentration when she was not speaking, thus lessening her believability.

On the other hand, Michael May was focused and showed the proper intensity as the trumpet playing Levee. His speech telling the story of the rape of his mother and the hanging of his father was riveting. And Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El was effectively consistent in his character development as the intellectual, piano-playing Toledo.

Richard Gould’s multi-room set was well conceived and executed.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Sarah May is one of the best area’s best directors. Unfortunately, she didn’t work her magic on ‘MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM.’ Maybe, as the show runs, and the actors get comfortable in their roles and learn their lines, the production will meld. On opening night, there was just too much wrong to get positively excited about.