Fifteen minutes, "Ma," the manager pleads, kneeling before his star like a humiliated child, begging her not to walk out on a recording session. He is a beaten man, this music industry parasite, caught in the crossfire of the battle royal between a penny-pinching record company executive and his client, a blues singer so convinced that she's held in contempt by them that any foul-up is an excuse for a lacerating display of her ego.
That the manager and executive are white and the singer is black goes to the irreconcilable heart of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," August Wilson's scorching portrait of black musicians in the 1920s and the barriers to self-expression imposed on them by the white establishment, as well as by their own debilitating hurts and insecurities.
It has been 18 years since Wilson presented his formidable credentials to the theater world with "Ma Rainey," a play that announced the arrival of a lush, authentic talent. And it's a pleasure to report that the drama, laced with the smoky songs of the period as well as an assortment of roles that equitably apportion the bravura moments, is still a heart-rending assault on the senses, a play that retains the surging power to overwhelm.
A new production of "Ma Rainey" is soon coming to Broadway with Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton, but it's hard to imagine it could be much of an improvement on director Tazewell Thompson's version for Arena Stage. In a season of impeccable casting at Arena, this work is yet another example, especially in the selection of the actors who play members of Ma's backup band, men whose stories provide the poignant underscoring for Wilson's tale of black musicians' struggle to find their own voices in a business that wants to keep them dependent and docile.
"Ma Rainey" is a fictionalized account of a day in a recording studio in 1927 with the famous blues singer of that name, here embodied by Tina Fabrique as a paranoid, pinched-face malcontent who sees conspiracies to undermine her everywhere.
A megastar with black audiences, she has been coaxed to Chicago by her manager, Irvin (Hugh Nees), to cut a record with a white executive, Sturdyvant (Timmy Ray James), who looks at her with cold eyes: She's a meal ticket and nothing more.
Ma, however, is eager to show these men who's boss, flaunting her romantic involvement with a younger woman, played by Kashi-Tara, and demanding her nephew Sylvester (KenYatta Rogers) be given a speaking part in one of the songs, even though his horrible stutter makes him comically unsuited to the task.
If the tug of war gives the play its narrative drive, it is the interplay among the four members of her band that provides the texture. Holed up in a rehearsal room, waiting for Ma to show up for the session, Cutler (Hugh Staples), Toledo (Frederick Strother), Levee (Gavin Lawrence) and Slow Drag (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) tune up and lay out the evening's themes.
The distinct experiences and viewpoints they represent can at times give the play an overly schematic feel, but the characters are full-blooded creations nonetheless.
The four actors mesh their performances seamlessly. The most contentious moments are provoked by Lawrence's arrogant, damaged Levee, a hot-tempered horn player who wants to do away with the "jug band" music they're forced to perform. He's a firebrand in the company of the other players, but a fawning supplicant in the presence of Sturdyvant, behavior that irritates Strother's excellent Toledo, the group's elder statesman, who believes no real progress can be achieved in the search for identity "as long as the black man looks to white folks for approval."
Derricks-Carroll is equally swell as Slow Drag, a good-time Charlie without a serious thought in his head; and Staples invests Cutler, the band's leader, with the genial blockheadedness of a working stiff who sees the world in just two dimensions.
Fabrique, possessed of a glorious voice, delivers an admirably unsympathetic portrayal of Ma; she's grown so jaded in her disgust with the disregard of white businessmen that her childish tantrums are second nature to her. Nees's Irvin, meanwhile, is the very model of abject cravenness; you are certain that if Ma crankily ordered him to lick her boots, he'd be on all his belly, with his tongue out.
Set designer Donald Eastman's rendering of the studio on two floors is shabbily apropos, and Merrily Murray-Walsh's costumes are dashing and decorative, particularly, Ma's fur-trimmed coat studded with sequins. One quibble though: The scene changes on a slowly revolving turntable are fitful distractions and give the stage a cluttered look; you find yourself gazing at the actors in the background way too frequently.
Still, this "Ma Rainey" is like an engine with two spare batteries: it has enormous strength in reserve. By the time of the explosive conclusion, you're fully apprised of the myriad ways that the profound disappointment of the oppressed can be channeled, whether it's in music, or poetry, or blood.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, by August Wilson. Directed by Tazewell Thompson. Lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound, Fabian Obispo. With Stephen M. McWilliams. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through Dec. 29. 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org