MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
at the Edgewater Theatre Center
August Wilson plans to chronicle the black experience in 20th-century America by writing a play set in each decade.
Sounds fine, but there’s a hitch: the black experience has been haunted by slavery and racism. Wilson can’t ignore that.
But that confronts him with the same problems that face anyone who tries to write about the Holocaust.
First, there’s the problem of reality outstripping the imagination. Try to invent a sadistic Nazi or a ruthless slave owner–no matter what your character does, something worse actually happened. Even scrupulously accurate accounts sometimes are literally unbelievable–it’s simply too hard to accept the fact that such cruelty happened. So writers who describe such horrors automatically sound like they’re sensationalizing.
On top of that, there’s something slightly obscene about titillating an audience with the suffering caused by slavery or the Final Solution. Sure, the story must be told, but I become uncomfortable when an author uses such facts merely to shock. That’s just another form of pornography.
So what is Wilson supposed to do? A black playwright can no more ignore racism than a Jew can ignore the trauma caused by murderous anti-Semitism. Yet dwelling on the sordid aspects of mother rape or genocide numbs the emotions, which makes any work of fiction dramatically ineffective.
Wilson’s solution involves an African form of “nonlinear” story telling. The characters ramble and free-associate. They say very little that sounds like it should be in italics, to identify a message from the playwright.
With this method, Wilson can evoke the consequences of racism without sounding preachy. For example, a young saxophone player in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom arrives at a recording session carrying a pair of brand-new “Florsheims” that cost him a week’s salary. He’s extremely proud of those shoes–they are totems of respectability–and that says more about the black man’s slavish imitation of white culture than any lecture Wilson could insert into the dialogue.
But Wilson employs this technique too much in Ma Rainey. The rambling dialogue quickly becomes tedious and irritating.
And yet, in another way, he doesn’t use the technique often enough. Wilson seems to recognize that real life is too boring for the stage, so instead of making canny use of casual conversation, he merely spices the tedium with melodrama and an occasional burst of violence.
For example, Levee, the sax player wearing those new shoes, flies into a rage when accused of being “spooked by the white man.” He screams out a story about being eight years old and defending his mother from a pack of white men intent on raping her. They were jealous of his father’s farming success, he says, so they were going to teach him not to be so “uppity,” but Levee lunged at one of the men with a knife, and nearly got killed for his audacity.
It’s not an implausible story–I’m sure worse actually happened. But in a play like this, it’s too much to believe. Although plausible, it sounds phony–the father is too noble, the son is too brave, the white men are too ugly. Consequently, the story actually diminishes the sense of rage that Wilson is trying to establish. The same is true about the violence at the end–while it provides a momentary rush of excitement, it subverts the play’s power and impact.
The play is about four band members who arrive at a shabby Chicago recording studio one winter’s day in 1927 to play backup for a famous blues singer who’s going to cut a couple of records. They retire to the rehearsal room downstairs (shown right next to the studio on the impressive set by David S. S. Davis), but instead of rehearsing they talk: they wonder if Ma Rainey will show up; they tease Levee about his new shoes; they argue about whether the door to the room is new; they philosophize.
“As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say . . . as long as he looks to white folks for approval . . . then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about,” says Toledo, a bookish, pedantic piano player who serves as the author’s mouthpiece.
Oh yeah, they also get around to rehearsing one song, with Slow Drag the bass player (Don Blackwell) doing a delightful impersonation of Ma Rainey. But the music isn’t enough to make the first act interesting.
This type of nonlinear narrative, at its best, allows Wilson to evoke the frustration and the resentment that racism has bred in these men, but the technique works only as well as the actors portraying the roles. Fortunately, the actors who play the main roles in the Pegasus Players’ production are superb.
Harry J. Lennix is brilliant as Levee, a brash, arrogant young man who wants to start his own band. Lennix makes his character generate lots of friction with the older band members, played by Don Mayo, Samuel Brooks, and Don Blackwell, who have resigned themselves to powerlessness. This confidence also sets the stage for the crushing disappointment Levee suffers later.
And Pat “Soul” Scaggs gives a turbocharged performance as Ma Rainey. From the moment she bursts onto the scene, hollering and complaining about the way she has been treated, she dominates the play. And her portrayal is perfect for the character–Ma Rainey knows that her manager and the owner of the studio (both whites) are only interested in her because her music might make a little money for them, so like a true prima donna she demands that everything be done her way. And she gets her way because “they ain’t got what they wanted yet,” she tells the leader of the band. “As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.”
Wilson admits that the best preparation he had for playwriting was his experience as a poet, and it’s his use of language that sustains him in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. A play isn’t a poem, however, and Wilson hasn’t quite mastered the finer points of dramatic structure. In Ma Rainey, he either bores the audience or bangs them over the head, and both lead to loss of consciousness.