To Showcase August Wilson, Actors Show Their Strengths

Anthony Mackie deftly evokes an impassioned Levee in Wilson's
Anthony Mackie deftly evokes an impassioned Levee in Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." (By Scott Suchman -- Kennedy Center)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008

If the name Anthony Mackie doesn't ring a bell, allow me to make an introduction. This remarkable young actor has taken up temporary residence at the Kennedy Center, where he's supplying all the kindling necessary for a fiery rendition of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

Mackie portrays Levee, the ambitious and restive horn player in August Wilson's drama, which uncovers the frustration starting to boil in 1927 in a rising generation of black Americans. With his dreams of a self-sufficient musical career dashed by the paternalism of the white establishment, as well as by the disdain of older black musicians, Levee becomes a formidable harbinger of the youth-driven, inner-city black explosion yet to come.

The performance is filled with such passion and humor that there is little an audience can do to resist -- and in spite of Levee's foolishness and defensiveness -- to hurt along with him.

It's a portrayal, in fact, that is helping to define an unexpected fringe benefit of "August Wilson's 20th Century," the month-long presentation of staged readings of the dramatist's 10-play cycle about African American life. Although the event was organized with the intent of spotlighting Wilson's words, it is also turning out to be a devilishly rewarding showcase for acting.

The payoff began with the first productions, "Gem of the Ocean" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," in the contributions of such fine interpreters of Wilson as "Gem's" Michele Shay and "Joe Turner's" Russell Hornsby. By the unveiling this week of "Ma Rainey" and "The Piano Lesson" -- plays three and four in Wilson's chronological parade through the century -- what has become increasingly clear is that a truly great Wilson repertory company has been assembled.

A number of its 41 cast members are reprising roles they've played before, which might help to explain the unusual depth, on short rehearsal, of many of the performances. (Some actors even brought their own costumes from prior productions, Kennedy Center officials say.) Others are slipping into roles for the first time. In some instances, the hybrid staged-reading format feels like a hindrance: A few actors never seem to take their noses out of the scripts they hold. What's surprising, however, is the degree to which an audience gets a holistic exposure to Wilson, a head-on feel for the blunt emotional force of his people.

This is as true for the plays one deeply admires as for the works that inspire smaller pools of appreciation. Despite its Pulitzer Prize, for example, the overlong "Piano Lesson" packs a minor wallop when experienced in the immediate aftermath of the supercharged generational and racial clashes of "Ma Rainey."

"The Piano Lesson," set in Pittsburgh's Hill District in 1936, does skillfully evoke the crosscurrents in a family struggling with the benighted legacy of slavery and its aftermath. The piano at the center of the story is a capital-M metaphor; engraved by an ancestor under slavery, the instrument becomes the focus of a battle between Boy Willie (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), who wants to sell it to buy a cotton field down south, and his sister Berniece (Heather Alicia Simms), for whom it is a sacred touchstone and reminder of her forebears' sacrifices.

Although the sell-it/don't-sell-it argument is visited and revisited to wearying effect, the characters of "The Piano Lesson" are inordinately rich, and many in Kenny Leon's staging are inhabited with a particular zest. Stephen McKinley Henderson's rendering of gambler-uncle Wining Boy illuminates a rambling man's gregarious charm, and Jason Dirden brings an effervescent appeal to the role of a wide-eyed, would-be skirt chaser from the sticks.

Then, of course, there is Santiago-Hudson, in another pace-setting Wilson turn. (He plays the tyrannical Caesar in the center's "Gem" and won a Tony in 1996 portraying Canewell in Wilson's "Seven Guitars.") His scheming, dreaming Boy Willie is one jolt of electricity after another, a big, pleasing take on a quintessential American type: the man seeking to reinvent himself.

For bravura work, "Ma Rainey" is more fertile territory still. The only play in the cycle that Wilson situated outside Pittsburgh, the piece is set in a Chicago studio, to which Ma Rainey, the so-called "queen of the blues," has been brought by her white manager (Jerry Whiddon) to record some of her hit songs.

An amusingly cranky Ebony Jo-Ann plays the wily Ma Rainey, who is thoroughly cognizant that it's only because of her moneymaking ability that she's indulged by Whiddon's Irvin and a white record producer (Raynor Scheine). Her scathingly funny revenge is to demand that the voice of her stuttering nephew, Sylvester, be used on the record. It is a tribute to the beguiling pitch of Eric Berryman's performance that Sylvester manages to seem both laughably entitled and pitiably disadvantaged.

The more fervent aspect of "Ma Rainey" takes place in a studio rehearsal room, in which Levee practices with three older members of Ma's backup band, most notably veteran piano player Toledo (the splendid Roger Robinson), who confounds Levee by demeaning his intelligence and knocking his ambitions.

Under director Lou Bellamy's excellent stewardship, Mackie superbly marks the transitions in Levee's tolerance, as the young man's pique and vanity mutate into furious grievance and finally, malevolent action. Wilson's brilliant evocation of a tiny slight -- the scuffing of a two-toned shoe -- is reacted to so shatteringly by Mackie that the play's tragic dimension comes to feel as if it were a matter of preordination.

The actor has another prominent spot on the festival roster, playing Cory, the wary, sensitive son in the forthcoming "Fences." Anyone who has seen him in "Ma Rainey" should be pleased to learn that this very weekend, Mackie's back in town.

August Wilson's 20th Century: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Directed by Lou Bellamy. Performance on April 1 at 7:30 p.m.

The Piano Lesson. Directed by Kenny Leon. Tonight at 7:30 and April 2 at 7:30 p.m. At the Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

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