Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
City Theatre seldom opens to a full house at the beginning of a theatrical run, but that’s just what greeted the cast of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on opening night. This supportive audience came out to see playwright August Wilson’s look at the “race records” business of the 1920s, when blues music was being recorded for the first time. In return, the cast and crew gave a winning and memorable production that captured all the joy and sadness found in both the play and the music.
There isn’t a wrong note in the casting. Not only is every single performance on the mark, but also the actors’ interaction with each other is seamless, making you feel like a lucky fly on the wall at a historical jam session.
The play opens in a Chicago recording studio as musicians arrive to back up the legendary Ma Rainey, “the mother of the blues.” As usual, Ma is late, and everyone has to wait around until the diva herself shows up. They’re willing to do so, since Rainey is a moneymaker—a rare power position for a black woman of her time.
While waiting, the four musicians begin to josh and jive, illustrating tight friendships and revealing individual stories. Each has a distinctive personality. Cutler (Romann Hodge) is the long-established leader and main reefer smoker. Toledo (Marques B. Davison) is the intellectual. Slow Drag (Cory Hill-Crudup) is the stable, good-natured bass player; and Levee (Thomas Wright) is the talented, edgy musician ready to break out on his own.
When Ma Rainey (Chenelle Doutherd) finally blows onstage with all her attitude and sass, we find out she’s indeed worth waiting for. Not only do we get some fine music, but we also get to see the workings of her life. Adding to her life story are her bumbling nephew Sylvester (Stefan Lee) and her lesbian lover Dussie Mae (Prema Cruz).
Director Angela-Dee Alforque nurtures both strong individual performances and wonderful cast interplay. The flow does slow down at the end of the first half, but it reconnects after intermission. And she pulls out an outstanding performance by young actor Wright, who not only displayed his acting talents, but also maintained his composure during an odd moment on opening night when a woman in the audience inexplicably laughed throughout his entire moving soliloquy.