Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Goodman Theatre

By Albert Williams

Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad. –ancient Roman saying

A cocksure, hotheaded young man locks horns with a flamboyant, slightly older woman as their mutual friends watch in dismay. This is the premise of a brilliant drama rich in ribald humor and tragic power, presented by a major Chicago theater in a production of impressive stature and moving insight.

The above description fit Steppenwolf’s recent revival of A Streetcar Named Desire; now it suits Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which opened at Goodman last week, the night after Streetcar closed. Anchored by a blistering lead performance by Harry J. Lennix, director Chuck Smith’s thoughtful, deliberately paced staging affirms that this 1984 work is a genuine American masterpiece.

Like Tennessee Williams in Streetcar, playwright August Wilson in Ma Rainey uses a test of wills between two compelling antagonists to explore the way people are destroyed by the same inner forces that drive them to struggle against the brutality of life. Like Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, the central characters in Ma Rainey wrestle for supremacy. But while Stanley and Blanche fight for literal space–the tenement apartment Stanley shares with Blanche’s sister Stella–the opponents here, both musicians, battle over artistic beliefs. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the real-life blues singer whose career inspired the play, refuses to compromise her gritty, down-home style as she records her signature song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; but her trumpet player Levee sneers at “jug-band music” and tries to jazz up the tune with a hot new arrangement Ma detests–“something wild, with lots of rhythm,” in the words of Ma’s white producer, Sturdyvant.

But deeper than the artistic disagreements (exacerbated by sexual jealousy, as Levee flirts with Ma’s young lesbian lover) is the musicians’ need for dignity and spiritual authenticity–an elusive goal for black artists in a white-run industry. Ma’s approach is to be tough and temperamental with her black colleagues as well as her white employer. But Levee thinks he can do better by catering to the young, urban, record-buying public’s taste for danceable jazz; proud of his ability to write music (even if he can’t spell “music”), he’s banking on an offer from Sturdyvant to publish his songs and help him get his own band–an escape as vital to him as Blanche’s need to find a nest with her sister is to her.

Levee is a would-be city slicker whose barnyard background is all too evident: “Can I introduce my red rooster to your brown hen?” he asks when he hits on Ma’s gold-digging girlfriend. Like Blanche, he’s vainly trying to flee the past–in Levee’s case, a childhood whose racist violence has left him physically and psychically scarred. Trying to deny his heritage rather than heal his wounds, Levee grows more and more desperate, until he tumbles into the madness that propels the play to its deadly climax.

Streetcar’s setting was 1947 New Orleans, a milieu that allowed Williams to sketch working-class whites disillusioned by the stagnation of postwar life. Wilson’s sociological purposes in Ma Rainey are grander. Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (in set designer Scott Bradley’s three-tiered hierarchy, a glassed-in upstairs booth is the exclusive domain of whites while a dungeonlike rehearsal room is reserved for black sidemen), the play is the first-produced of Wilson’s epic cycle charting the 20th-century African-American experience–six plays so far, each set in a different decade. Surrounding the conflict between Ma and Levee is a study of black culture as it shifts from southern to northern, rural to urban, conventionally religious to worldly–defiantly so in the case of Levee, who tells God to “kiss my ass.” Ma clings to her musical idiom for the same reason Levee wants to change it–it’s old-fashioned and country-style–while Levee’s up-tempo arrangement repudiates “the voice inside” that guides her. Her contempt for so-called progress extends to the recording industry itself, which she views as a necessary evil; the blues, she reminds us, is “a way of understanding life.” (One of the play’s longest and best sequences highlights the absurdity of the technological attempt to capture the spontaneous utterance of raw emotion.)

Supporting Ma’s position–and thus intensifying Levee’s alienation– are the band’s other three players. Mediocre musicians though they are–these hacks worry most about getting paid in cash (“It don’t make no sense to give a nigger a check,” one insists)–they’re eloquent indeed when they “sing” their own blues in the long speeches Wilson has given them. Toledo, the piano player who kicks off every song with the same comically slow countdown (“One, two, you know what to do”), is a soft-spoken, studious fellow absorbed by “the colored man’s problems”; the solution, he preaches, is for American blacks to understand their heritage. Slow Drag, the mountainous bass player, ridicules Toledo’s preoccupation with the African diaspora–“I ain’t no African!”–and is confused by Levee’s talk of his “art”: “What’s drawing got to do with it?” he asks, anxious to get on with the business of rehearsing. But he waxes poetic about musicians’ camaraderie: “All up and down the back roads, the side roads, the front roads. We done played the juke joints, the whorehouses, the barn dances…laughed together, fought together, slept in the same bed, sucked on the same titty.” The comic side of Slow Drag’s rhapsody is that he’s trying to coax the band’s trombonist-leader Cutler to share his reefer. Cutler, the quasi father figure, is a laid-back graybeard who tries to keep tensions to a minimum; a deeply religious man, he spins a long, chilling tale about a black minister nearly killed by a white mob.

These and other monologues occasionally give the play an operatic quality, though the excellent Goodman cast effectively ground these passages in a naturalistic, conversational give-and-take. Ma Rainey demands–and in this production rewards–close attention; what might seem random, rambling riffs are in fact carefully selected to sharpen and shade Wilson’s theme of cultural change and to develop the group dynamics that isolate Levee. He delivers the script’s most extended and presentational set piece–a stunning monologue at the end of act one in which he describes a white mob’s rape of his mother and lynching of his father. The second act’s even more gripping climax establishes that Levee is haunted not just by racist violence but by his inability to combat it. This inner turmoil is what drives him to try to fit into northern-urban-white society–an impulse signified by the white-and-brown shoes he proudly sports and by his gullible belief that Sturdyvant wants to further his musical talent rather than exploit it.

Unabashedly historical in its perspective, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom nonetheless addresses a timely topic: black-on-black violence as an expression of impotent rage against racial injustice. The play’s climactic bloodshed–clearly foreshadowed in the preceding act when Levee displays the ugly knife scar he earned defending his mother–is no less shocking for being inevitable. Though the device might seem somewhat cliched in the wake of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, David Rabe’s Streamers, and David Mamet’s American Buffalo, it takes on new resonance here–certainly in Lennix’s unforgettable performance as Levee. Returning to the role he first played a decade ago in Pegasus Players’ non-Equity Chicago premiere of the work, Lennix proves that Levee is a great tragic role on a par with Oedipus, Hamlet–and, yes, Blanche DuBois. He carefully charts Levee’s path to self-destruction, from tense smile and harsh, too-loud laugh to showy bravado to tears of rage and shame to delirious violence to bleak resignation.

Felicia P. Fields as Ma, meanwhile, eschews the raucous flamboyance with which the part can too easily be played, making us understand the conscious choice that underlies Ma’s diesel-dyke diva persona. Flawless support comes from Ernest Perry Jr. as Cutler, Tim Edward Rhoze as Toledo, Percy Littleton as Slow Drag, Lori Holton Nash as Ma’s flapper companion Dussie Mae, Dwain A. Perry as Ma’s stammering nephew, Gary Houston as the crooked kvetch Sturdyvant, and Paul Ratliff as Ma’s Jewish manager, forever trying to broker deals between his black client and the white power structure she’s forever testing.

Though it was Pegasus that gave this play its Chicago premiere, Goodman is unquestionably Wilson’s home base here, having offered the pre-Broadway tryouts of his later plays Fences (with James Earl Jones) and The Piano Lesson (with Charles S. Dutton, the original Levee on Broadway), among others. With this production, Goodman becomes the first major theater to produce Wilson’s entire six-play cycle–a major artistic achievement akin to the Lyric mounting all of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Others have complained in these pages that Goodman’s plan to mount Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom didn’t promise theatrical “risks.” But great playwriting in a production this fine always deserves a hearing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): stage photo.