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

Advertisements

Sticks & Stones (Evolution Theatre Company & CATCO – Columbus, OH)


“There’s always a price to being included,” Janice Sanders says in Cory Skurdal’s Sticks & Stones, the final play in this year’s Local Playwright’s Festival presented by Evolution Theatre Company in partnership with CATCO. The specifics behind Ms. Sanders’ statement become clear throughout the play, a thought-provoking and honest exploration of the prejudices that exist around being true to oneself, be it openly gay, trans, or anything considered other than the norm. No, on second thought, perhaps it’s about jealousy and self-hatred. Actually, there are many different themes covered in this story of two women fighting over words, the kind used to classify as well as subjugate people.


Mr. Skurdal’s play won the 2014 CATCO/Greater Columbus Arts Council Playwriting Fellowship; this is its first full production after a reading last year. On the surface, Sticks & Stones is about the aforementioned Janice Sanders, a popular art critic, who feels she has been libeled by Kyle, a transgender blogger, after certain innuendos are made about her private life online. Janice is quite conservative and traditional, and it’s easy to see that the uninhibited Kyle is the polar opposite – or is she? Both women know what it’s like to struggle with their identity, but they deal with it in completely different ways: Janice goes inward and keeps her cards close to her chest while Kyle lets “Kylie” (the name she calls herself) out for the world to see. The action unfolds as each woman relays her interpretation of the conflict to their respective lawyers, putting the audience in the position of being the jury.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Skurdal’s writing is uncommonly rich with dialogue that flows naturally and makes a point without being preachy. “You’re sick with shame,” Kyle shouts at Janice, only to have her hurl back, “And you ought to be!” So much judgmental and prejudicial rhetoric comes from Janice that it brings to mind those impassioned but completely misguided and embarrassing Facebook rants we all see posted by former high school friends or distant cousins. The only thing constant in life is change, and that’s one point which Janice struggles to accept based largely on the feelings of her family.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Josie Merkle (Janice) and Kim Garrison Hopcraft (Susan)

Women are the stars of this piece, and it is their actions that drive the plot. Some men are on hand in the cast, but what a rare treat to see a play with so many important roles for women in a culture where being white and male is flaunted as the ultimate prize in the genetic lottery. Director Joe Bishara keeps things moving at a swift rate, incrementally increasing the pace until an inevitable emotional (and physical) confrontation occurs between Janice and Kyle; the moment is so heated and real that I had to suppress the urge to jump in to break it up.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Josie Merkle (Janice) and Frank Barnhart (Dana)

Josie Merkle is the cantankerous Janice Sanders, ostensibly the villain of this work. She has no trouble delivering her caustic remarks with relish; and yet, Ms. Merkle allows us to see Janice as sympathetic as well, a product of her environment from a time when going against the grain was not much of an option. Playing her as an unrepentant harpy would’ve been too easy with this material, and Ms. Merkle has an instinctive biting delivery that would’ve made that a walk in the park for her; instead, she chooses another path, one laced with frustration born out of years and years of paying the price for inclusion.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Staley Jophiel Munroe (Kyle) and Priyanka Shetty (Kendall)

As competent as the cast and script is, the show would not function half as well without the glorious performance of Staley Jophiel Munroe as the fearless Kyle, a trans woman who manages to push the buttons of most everyone in her vicinity, sometimes just for fun (as when she challenges the personal space of her lawyer Kendall, played by Priyanka Shetty, who squirms uncomfortably and believably at the intrusion) but more often for just being true to herself and refusing to allow the opinions of others to bring her down. I gather Ms. Munroe has a deep well of life experience that informs her portrayal; the flashback scene with her father is particularly heartbreaking, surely touching a nerve with any LGBT person who has faced hostility from their family. “He can’t be this way!” her father shouts, while Ms. Munroe’s plaintive, “I AM this way!” is so nakedly honest that I defy anyone to walk away unmoved. After the performance, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Munroe, who was quite modest about her abilities, stating that she had never acted on stage before; what’s wonderful is what she does here doesn’t feel like acting at all – it’s simply being – and I sincerely hope this is but the first of many performances she will gift to us.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Staley Jophiel Munroe (Kyle)

Sticks & Stones is compact at just over an hour in length, but it has so much to say about our outside differences, deeply-held prejudices, and fear. People tend to fear the unknown, and the very nature of being trans means that there isn’t a “one size fits all” way of classifying them; they may or may not have had certain surgeries to change the anatomy with which they were born, but that’s for each trans person to know and share (or not) with whom they please. For some people it’s easier to manage fear if they have a way of categorizing things, setting apart what they do understand from what they don’t. What Sticks & Stones drives home is that all of the important characteristics of being a human are there within all of us; love, sadness, longing, betrayal – these emotions feel the same to each of us on the inside no matter what we look like on the outside.

***/ out of ****

Sticks & Stones continues through to June 12th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

Allegiance (Longacre Theatre – NYC)

I openly admit that I have a positive bias towards Lea Salonga from years of listening to her as the singing voice of Jasmine in Aladdin as well as seeing her as Kim, her signature role in Miss Saigon. Before attending Allegiance, the new Broadway musical in which she stars, I was prepared to enjoy whatever she did, even if it meant singing the phone book or reciting limericks about fishing. I knew it was about how, after Pearl Harbor was bombed, the United States government rounded up 120,000 Japanese Americans and put them into internment camps, taking them from their homes and businesses until such time that the powers that be were satisfied that their allegiance was with the U.S. It sounds like a depressing topic for a musical, but other good musicals have been made about WWII – Cabaret and The Sound of Music being the first that come to mind. I was worried that the show would be a static lesson that would be preachy and full of self importance; what I discovered is a powerful and bold new work that brings history to thrilling life.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Allegiance tells the story of the Kimura family (grandfather, father, son, and daughter) who own and operate a farm in Salinas, California. We meet them in 1941 during what could be criticized as an over idyllic scene with the song and dance number “Wishes on the Wind,” but anything would seem wishful fantasy after they are forced into an internment camp with ramshackle buildings, no stalls in the bathrooms, flea and rodent infested bedding, and lack of adequate water and food. Many of the Japanese Americans lived like this until the end of the war four years later, and they were interrogated as to whether their allegiance was with Hitler and their Axis-overrun homeland or with the United States, the same country that robbed them of their livelihoods and strip-searched them in public, a horrifying experience for anyone but even more so for a people for whom modesty is a core value. Some of the younger men in the camp want to enlist to prove that their loyalty is with the U.S., while their families are understandably horrified that their kin would choose to support a country who had so egregiously wronged them, in such a way that what was done wrong could never be made right again.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
As to expected, Lea Salonga as big sister Kei is a delight with her singing voice every bit as bright and winsome as ever; it is her acting though that really drew me in to this piece as her character has so many different notes to play as the kind of peacemaker in her family. Telly Leung as her kid brother Sammy is a bundle of energetic delight, my first time seeing him live in a lead role. Mr. Leung is handsome and quick on his feet, with a determination as Sammy to prove his patriotism that actually made me think of Stockholm Syndrome, where victims feel sympathy and a kind of dedication for their captors above and beyond themselves. His sparring with Ms. Salonga and Christopheren Nomura as their father rings true and surely represents the dilemma experienced by so many Japanese Americans during the war.

As events unfold, the individual Kimura family members grow in such a way that the question of their “allegiance” is not so easy to pinpoint and define; they see that not all Americans are weary of them, most notably Hannah, played by Katie Rose Clarke with gangly humor and awkwardness, as a nurse who befriends the family and tries to help them. Her role as a love interest for Sammy might seem only contrived if it wasn’t so deftly and honestly performed.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
George Takei plays the dual role of grandfather Ojii-chan as well as the older Sammy in opening and closing scenes that frame the show. Mr. Takei, who was in an internment camp as a child, plays the two roles quite differently – one is of an open and accepting immigrant and the other is of an elderly man disillusioned by war. Mr. Takei is adept at playing both sides of the coin and works well with the ensemble, not one to allow his star power to derail the storytelling or encite undue attention, as is also the case with Ms. Salonga. The supporting cast is also without fault, but it seems such shame to me that we rarely get to see these performers on Broadway outside of roles where being Asian is a main element of the plot.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
There is a trend in musicals ever since Rent where the sound design favors volume over clarity, often too loud without enough separation between voices and the orchestra; what it creates is an unpleasant burst of cacophonous noise, at times unintelligible and discordant with what is going on in the show. Sound designer Kai Harada avoids all of that here with sound that is clear and crisp, where even ensemble numbers have distinct lyrics that can clearly be understood (no small feat). The proficiency of the technical and creative team doesn’t stop there as Howell Binkley’s lighting, Donyale Werle’s sets, and Alejo Vietti’s costumes create an alchemy that looks and feels authentic, evoking the early 1940s without going overboard. This is not a musical full of bright, saturated colors; those flashes of color appear at very specific moments, such as in the tree in the opening “Wishes on the Wind” scene, and other scenes are appropriately muted and grayish with subtle swatches of violet and navy. The backdrops have moody, dark projections of the bleak landscape, and shafts of light stream through boards in the ramshackle internment camp walls; you’d think it was an exaggeration if only it weren’t real. A lot of credit for the handsomeness and effectiveness of this production deserves to go to director Stafford Arima for his vision and concept, but not giving a shout out to the exemplary efforts of his team would be a crime; they represent some of the best of what Broadway has to offer.

The book by Marc Acito, Lorenzo Thione, and Jay Kuo (Mr. Kuo is also is responsible for the sweetly stirring music and lyrics) is cleanly focused, quite direct in pointing out facts about the living conditions of the internment camp while also bringing to life the story of a non traditional family working through its own issues as they deal with a country that has made them prisoners. I almost wrote “concentration camp” there but caught myself; in reality, these internment camps were just as horrible as those Nazi chambers of death that we and the rest of the Allied forces were fighting against in WWII. While the characters are understandably aghast at being imprisoned, they still want to be in this country and thought of as Americans. After all, they immigrated here and created families, businesses, paid their taxes… People don’t generally do that if they want to bring about death and destruction to the country on whose soil they have built their livelihoods.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
And yet, this isn’t an anti-American story or show at all; if anything, it is a statement against stereotypes, racism, and ignorance. It’s clear that the Japanese should not have been treated in such a fashion simply because they looked like the enemy, but it was a time before television, the Internet, and so much globalization of the news. That’s not to excuse the actions of our government, but it is easier for me to understand such a radical move in that time than it would be today, when one has to actively choose ignorance when so much information is available at our fingertips. That’s why the statements of some notable Republicans currently vying for the Presidency concern me deeply; their sentiments sound a lot like the uninformed masses that allowed the internment of the Japanese in this country during WWII. The only way to fight against such ignorance and fear is with education and enlightenment, and that’s what I found in Allegiance, a show that brings a story about parents and children and siblings (who doesn’t have all or some of those?) forced to choose between a rock and a hard place with neither option being ideal or even slightly fair.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
I suppose the ultimate success of a show relies on its ability to move people; if it can do that, be it towards laughter or tears, then it has accomplished something more than what might be found on a balance sheet. That thought brings to mind the song “Higher” that Ms. Salonga sings near the end of act one of Allegiance. As her voice and the music continued to build, I noticed some peripheral movement to my right. I glanced over, expecting to fly into a rage at someone for checking their cellphone or unwrapping something loudly; what I saw was the married Asian couple seated next to me join hands. That small, silent gesture affirmed for me the quality and importance of a piece like Allegiance, one that connects with the heart to tell a story about our history – not to indict or assign blame, but to remind us so that we never forget lest it happen again. I can only hope that this play enjoys a healthy life in regional and community theatre after its criminally short Broadway run ends. Bravo!

***/ out of ****

Allegiance continues through to February 14th in the Longacre Theatre at 220 West 48th Street in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://allegiancemusical.com/