“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” continues Open Stage of Harrisburg’s successful presentation of August Wilson’s Century Cycle of 10 plays.
Wilson wrote one play for each decade of the African-American experience in the 20th century. Having previously produced “Jitney” and “The Piano Lesson,” “Ma Rainey” keeps the cycle moving along.
While previous Open Stage productions of Wilson’s work were set in Pittsburgh, this play transports us to a Chicago recording studio in 1927.
The playing space is divided into a rehearsal room for the band and the recording studio. The theater’s own technical booth serves as the recording studio’s booth, allowing the audience to feel that they are right in the middle of the action.
The title of the show is from a song of the same name that is being recorded by blues legend Ma Rainey. The play tells the story of an afternoon recording session with Ma, her band and entourage and the white producer and agent who profited from her gift.
While it does explore race relations between blacks and whites in the 1920s, it also delves more into the lives of the characters and their interracial conflict. While the band argues below in the rehearsal room over which version of a song to play, the producer and agent are in a constant power struggle above as they lay blame on each other and pay off crooked cops.
But the true heart of the play is the four men in the band, their love of music and the humorous banter as they tell stories and anecdotes that make up their rich and interesting lives.
Aaron Bomar is Toledo, the philosophical piano player who is always reading and quick to offer up words of wisdom and advice. Ronnie Banks plays Slow Drag, the bassist, whose antics will entertain you and his singing voice will make you swoon. Leonard Dozier is the horn player, Levee, who at first comes across as the party guy of the bunch who is obsessed with his expensive shoes.
But after he is mocked by the others, his heart-wrenching tale of his youth will leave a lump in your throat. Daniel Fordham is Cutler, the trombonist who is the peacemaker and voice of reason in the eclectic group. “There’s more to life than trying to have a good time — all the time,” he said.
Back in the studio, Jeff Luttermoser’s harried agent, Irvin, will do whatever he can to appease his temperamental client and is in constant altercations with James Robert Clark’s producer Sturdyvant.
There is an unspoken battle between the two that both actors handle adeptly. Then into the scene bursts Ma Rainey, played with incredible fire by Sharia Benn. Her portrayal of Ma is feisty; you don’t want to get on her bad side. She demands and she gets. And when she sings, she transports you back in time.
Ben Forer holds his own up against this powerhouse as a policeman intent on arresting her, but willing to be persuaded by easy cash. Jeremy Patterson is endearing as Ma’s stuttering nephew, Sylvester, and Tanisha Hollis as Dussie Mae does a nice job as she walks the fine line between where her true allegiances lie.
Kudos to director Donald L. Alsedek for once again bringing the beautiful words of August Wilson to life at Open Stage and to his fine cast who deliver a play that is entertaining and informative.
As Ma Rainey said: “You don’t sing to feel better, you sing to understand life. This would be an empty world without the blues. I try to fill it up.”
There was a reason she was called the mother of the blues.