Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“The sooner you understand it ain’t what you say, or what Mr. Irvin say… It’s what Ma say that counts,” says Cutler, who plays guitar and trombone and is the unofficial leader of the band. The Ma he is referring to is Ma Rainey, and the argument is over which version of a song she will sing in August Wilson’s seminal Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, currently being presented by Short North Stage as part of a year-long festival of Mr. Wilson’s works.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Of course, the play isn’t really about music – it’s about power, and in a time and place like Chicago in 1927, being black and female would normally place one near the bottom rung in the pecking order of the day. Ma Rainey is no ordinary woman though, and she knows that she has something that Irvin, her white manager, and Sturdyvant, her white record producer, want desperately, but she’s going to make them work for it. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about the rehearsal and recording session for the song of that same name; her trumpet player, Levee, has written a new arrangement for the song, but Ma Rainey is not a woman who is about to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and that includes doing a favor for the pushy Levee. The rest of her band is ready to follow her lead, but Levee feels that siding with Irvin and Sturdyvant against Ma will put him in their good graces, enabling him to embark on a career of his own. 

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“They don’t care nothing about me,” Ma confides to Cutler. “All they want is my voice. 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.” Ma knows that she holds all the cards but that her power is transient; when all is said and done, she’ll be dismissed until she is needed again. This is why Ma Rainey has demands she makes sure are met; it’s not just for her, but for all of the people who don’t have a voice to command the same kind of respect for themselves. In the same position, wouldn’t we all play up the opportunity to throw our weight around before the clock strikes twelve and the coach turns back into a pumpkin again?

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“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. He’s just gonna be about what the white folks want him to be about,” Toledo, Ma’s piano player, wisely tries to explain to the hot-headed and ambitious Levee, though it’s a lesson Levee must learn the hard way. This is a time when segregation is still strictly enforced, and even up north, where the social situation is far more open, black people are still regarded with skepticism and a side eye. It’s enough to make anyone restless and frustrated, something with which
people who have been subjugated be it for their color or sexuality or some other reason can surely relate; remove “colored” and “white” from Toledo’s advice and it still rings true. This might be a “black play,” but its story about the disenfranchised and repressed is universal. The characters live in a time when racism is pervasive in a way that could make many complacent – but not Ma Rainey or Levee, one fighting quality which they both share.

So much of the play is spent with Ma’s band as they discuss and argue about life, all the while waiting for Ma to make her appearance and then be ready to record. The band members discuss women, money, philosophy, and even their ancestors in Africa; their conversation flows so naturally (a credit to Mr. Wilson’s genius) that it isn’t immediately apparent the relevance it will all have in the play. It’s during all of this that the audience gets to know and care for the characters as real people; we all become invested in how the session is going to play out because we get to know these people and how they think. This makes the startling finale all the more heartbreaking, a perfect demonstration of the misguided aggression that can result from broken promises and shattered dreams.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

As directed by Mark Clayton Southers, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a tight drama with enough genuine laughs and tense moments to feel thrillingly real. Mr. Southers doesn’t allow any of August Wilson’s spry dialogue to be tossed about or sped past; everyone in the cast gives the appearance of being united to tell this story without sounding too precious or studied. It’s a landmark work, but this fine cast thankfully doesn’t tiptoe around the material; many of the characters aren’t exactly endearing or likeable, but that’s completely beside the point.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Standouts in the cast are Wilma Hatton as the persnickety but in demand Ma Rainey; Chuck Timbers as Cutler, the voice of reason in the band; Will Williams as Toledo, the pianist who knows a little bit about most everything; Taylor Martin Moss as Sylvester, Ma’s stuttering nephew; and Ryan Kopycinski as the policeman who just can’t quite believe Ma Rainey could own a car or is as important as she claims.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

The real treasure though is to be found in Bryant Bentley’s performance as Levee, the bullish trumpet player who is as uneducated as he is blindly ambitious. Mr. Bentley takes a character who often rubs people the wrong way and makes him unexpectedly sympathetic; we understand why he is the way he is, and we want him to find some measure of success because we can see that he wants it so badly he can taste it. Levee’s disillusionment is felt by the audience all because of Mr. Bentley’s commitment and instinctual quickness; his performance rises to be the equal of this material, a daunting feat indeed.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

One could quibble about the prerecorded music and the fake playing of the instruments being handled in a way that is less than optimal, but Short North Stage’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is so alive and otherwise involving that it is futile to deny its charms and power. This is the second work of August Wilson I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this year. Mr. Wilson is hailed as one of America’s foremost black playwrights, though I think the qualifier is unnecessary; August Wilson is one of America’s foremost playwrights, period, and his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not to be missed.

**** out of ****

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues through to June 19th in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/536

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Two Trains Running (PAST Productions Columbus – Columbus, OH)

We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it; we can either settle for the way things are, or stand up to actively change the narrative. That’s the lesson I learned while watching how the people in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running responded to adversity; some caved immediately, others balked but eventually gave in, and a few others continued to fight for what was right, even when their words fell upon deaf ears. This PAST Productions Columbus presentation is one of a series of works by Mr. Wilson being produced throughout this year in a partnership with Short North Stage funded by PNC Arts Alive.

Two Trains Running was first performed in 1990 and ran on Broadway for four months in 1992. The play in set in Pittsburgh at the end of the 1960s inside Lee’s Restaurant. Memphis Lee is the owner, and the city is exercising its right of eminent domain to take possession of his restaurant. Memphis is determined to get $25,000 for his place, even though its glory days are long past. The city is supposed to make an offer of fair market value for the building, but no one believes Memphis will get what he demands because he is black. Lee’s Restaurant is a hangout for several men in the neighborhood: Wolf, a bookie; Sterling, recently paroled and looking for work; Holloway, a retired painter; West, a wealthy funeral home director; and Hambone, a mentally-challenged man. Risa is Memphis’ waitress, far more interested in chatting with the fellas than doing her job, much to Memphis’ chagrin.

 

Photo: Patrick Evans
 
Throughout the course of the play we learn about how the Hill District where the restaurant is located was once an active, prosperous neighborhood; now it is stagnant with few opportunities and a general malaise of unrest. Many people play the numbers, hoping that their number may come up, which is so unrealistic that it seems logical compared to trusting that their lots in life will improve any other way. The optimism brought by the civil rights movement earlier in the decade has evolved into a more aggressive feeling towards the great social and economic divide between white and black people. Still, the people at Lee’s Restaurant still find plenty to laugh about, their sense of humor about the situation and their faith in a higher power being the support they need to keep going.

 

Photo: Patrick Evans – (left to right) Tony Roseboro (Memphis), Vincent L. Mason (West), Lisa C. Shepherd (Risa), Scott Porter (Sterling), and Truman Winbush Jr. (Holloway)
 
Standouts in this talented ensemble are Tony Roseboro as Memphis, playing the determined business owner with nerve; Mr. Roseboro never makes a false move, and he’s the kind of flawed hero you want to root for; Lisa C. Shepherd is Risa, Memphis’ waitress and the object of much of his scorn; Ms. Shepherd isn’t an easy nut to crack, but when she allows her emotions to bubble to the surface she’s electric to watch; Vincent L. Mason plays West, the funeral director; Mr. Mason speaks deliberately and with care in a way that lets the audience know that he’s aware of how his community holds his success in high regard while also relaying how that kind of pressure can be stifling; last but not least is David Johnson as Hambone, the man-child who constantly shouts, “I want my ham!” Mr. Johnson is hilarious without turning Hambone into a gross caricature of a challenged individual; his continued pursuit of the ham that the grocer cheated him out of nearly ten years before is a comforting daily distraction to the neighborhood. When circumstances around Hambone shift, Ms. Shepherd takes full advance of the moment, her plea on his behalf quite heartfelt and sincere.

The title Two Trains Running is a reverence to Memphis’ hometown which he remembers for the two trains than ran there; he might as well be referencing the two paths he could take in regards to the sale of his business: accept less or fight for more. His fight is akin to that of Cervantes’ Don Quixote battling windmills, a fool’s folly a la “The Impossible Dream,” and this is one area in which Memphis and Hambone are matched; they both fight for what is just and right no matter the catcalls or pressure from the crowd. There’s a lot to respect there and with which many of us can identify; all of this is clear without being overstated by director Patricia Wallace-Winbush.

“Language in this play contains racial epithets that may offend some audience members,” is printed along the bottom on the show’s program; I rolled my eyes at first because I thought it was an unnecessary warning. Are we so politically correct that everything needs a warning label? That being said, the “N” word is used a lot in this play, but it is integral to the story. The “N” word is used as an endearment as well as to cut others down to size, and its pervasiveness is effective in demonstrating a community in which people often tear each other down through their words rather than build each other up, partly I suppose because that is what had been done to them all of their lives. This play is set in a time before rap music and a younger generation reclaimed the word for use with a different intention; here its use still has bite, and the black girlfriend I attended with even mentioned at intermission that it was a bit much even for her. I take that as showing the word’s power and effectiveness of its use in this piece.

 

Photo: Patrick Evans – (top left to right) Guy Jones (Wolf), Vincent L. Mason (West), Tony Roseboro (Memphis), Truman Winbush Jr. (Holloway) – (bottom left to right) David Johnson (Hambone), Lisa C. Shepherd (Risa), and Scott Porter (Sterling)
 

Two Trains Running is the kind of play that takes its time to unfold (running well over two and a half hours including an intermission), painting a vivid picture of a specific place and time with characters that are true to themselves and interact naturally. What the piece lacks in plot it more than makes up for in message: Keep fighting for what is right. This is a sentiment that will never go out of style, and one that we should all remember to live by.

***1/4 out of ****

Two Trains Running continues through to March 19th in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://pastproductionscolumbus.com/ and tickets purchased via http://m.bpt.me/event/2488083