The "black bottom," a dance that resembled the shimmy, is said to have been invented by southern blacks in the early 1920s. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is a play named after her song, but the multiple meanings of the words are not lost on a contemporary audience, which can see both the defiance and the posturing implicit in focusing on that particular part of the anatomy.
August Wilson's play, which opened at the Studio Theatre Sunday night, is a wrenching backstage drama about four musicians and their bosses, both black and white, and the racism that shapes and, for some, destroys their lives. Set in a shabby Chicago recording studio in 1927, the play has the texture of history but, more important, the vibrancy of good theater.
The focus of the play shifts between the studio and a nearby rehearsal room, where the four musicians spend their time before the session finally gets under way. There they drink, smoke (more than one substance), practice, argue and banter. Their exchanges are collegial but tinged with a submerged anger that flares like a blowtorch and is as easily extinguished -- for a while. It is masculine ribbing, competitive and often harsh.
Toledo (Joseph Pinckney), a heavyset piano player, is the philosopher of the group, given to barely coherent speeches relating the current status of blacks with their African roots. Slow Drag (Nap Turner), the laconic bass player, is, like his friend Cutler (Bill Harris) the guitar player, an aging trouper, vaguely content with his lot. The fourth member of the band is Levee (Valdred Doug Brown), younger, more ambitious, defensive and with a long-submerged anger that eventually explodes in a hot and destructive fury.
Rainey (Alfredine P. Brown) is a hewn rock of ego, held somewhat in awe by her musicians for the fierce, no-nonsense way in which she makes her demands to her white manager and the studio boss. She seems, nonetheless, unaware of the incongruity of her imperiousness; even though she can insist that the recording session be delayed until her Coca-Cola has been delivered, she is still a tool of the white men who control her career. The only time her manager invited her into his house was to sing for his other guests, Levee says: "Ma Rainey is just another nigger they can use to make money."
As dominant a figure as Rainey is, the action of the play does not concentrate on her. The volatile Levee is the catalyst of the play's most intense moments, constantly pushing himself and others to the brink and, eventually, going over it. He flirts audaciously with Dussie Mae (Caron Tate), the young woman Ma Rainey considers her own; he sneers openly at the music they are playing; and he clearly considers himself superior to his colleagues in every way. Combustion is inevitable, yet what triggers it is unexpected.
Director Samuel P. Barton keeps the tension in balance, building slowly but consistently to the brutal climax. The evening is not without melodrama, particularly in Levee's emotional first-act description of a childhood trauma that presumably motivates his behavior. Brown's performance, however, remains forceful and unflinching, tackling headlong his role's considerable emotional demands. As he continues in the part, Brown may be able to orchestrate the emotion with more modulation, adding to its complexity.
Pinckney, as the stolid Toledo, and Brown, as the solid Rainey, are as strong as their physiques, and Harry A. Winter is quietly professional as the pale, harried manager. Bill Harris and Nap Turner are, it is evident, musicians rather than actors. They add physical presence and textural dimension but lack the sense of timing and cadence the more experienced actors command. As the seductive Dussie Mae, Tate is disarmingly lovely, but seems uncertain and tentative in the character. Set designer Michael Layton has created an appropriately dismal studio; one can almost feel years of cigarette ashes covering the premises like a veil of neglect.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, by August Wilson. Directed by Samuel P. Barton, set by Michael Layton, costumes by Ric Thomas Rice, lighting by Daniel MacLean Wagner, properties by Sandra Fleishman, musical direction by David Crandall. With Timothy Rice, Harry A. Winter, Bill Harris, Joseph Pinckney, Nap Turner, Valdred Doug Brown, Alfredine P. Brown, Robert Sams, Caron Tate, Harry Justin Elam Jr. At the Studio Theatre through June 15.