- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

Arena Stage's production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," directed with deep musicality by Tazewell Thompson, may be the most satisfying and affecting rendition to date of August Wilson's play about a 1920s black blues singer and a middle-of-the-night recording session.

Everything works on all cylinders, like a top-notch jazz group playing as if the musicians' fingers and lips were on fire. The ensemble cast gives and takes, indulging in solos and improvisations from time to time, operating like virtuoso musicians more intent on sending the piece into the heavens than standing out individually. Mr. Wilson's dialogue is inherently musical, and the players round out and groove on every note.

Donald Eastman's set takes to heart Mr. Wilson's stage directions that the Chicago recording studio where Ma Rainey (Tina Fabrique) and her Southern "jug music" band gather to make a record be connected by a staircase to a control booth. There, the imperious white producer Sturdyvant (Timmy Ray James) keeps himself removed from the black musicians who make him rich.

Irvin (Hugh Nees, excellent as the needling go-between), Ma's placating and pleading manager, is the intermediary between these two worlds, and he is never entirely comfortable or welcome in either. The studio booth seems cold and echoey, but Mr. Eastman makes the recording studio revolve like an LP, with the visuals (and lighting by Robert Wierzel) as rich as the sounds emanating from a record player.

It obviously is a space rented by the session and well-used but Mr. Eastman and Mr. Wierzel somehow make this anonymous place of wooden chairs and an old piano mean something. For a few hours, it becomes home to the musicians cooling their heels in the rehearsal room waiting for Ma Rainey to arrive. They rag on each other's clothes and success with women, shoot the breeze and tell stories about racism as casually as flicking lint off your lapel.

The musicians immediately get comfortable, as if they are accustomed to making do with whatever life tosses their way. They stake their territory in the low-ceilinged room ringed with overhead lights you normally would see in a police interrogation room.

Cutler (Hugh Staples), the patient and reasonable leader of the band, sits just off center, where he can keep an eye on everyone. Toledo (Frederick Strothers), the shambling piano player, is the philosopher of the group and the only one who can read. He squats front and center, the better to deliver his elaborate musings on black history and other topics.

Never straying too far from the father figure Toledo is Slow Drag (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), a fellow as go-along, get-along as the mellow strummings of his bass. Although Slow Drag is forever dancing and moving to the tunes in his head, he seems as squarely planted on this earth as his upright bass.

His opposite, both temperamentally and in physical relation on the stage, is the horn player Levee (Gavin Lawrence), a peppery hothead itching to throw over the old style of Ma Rainey's blues for something so jazzy and upbeat that he can "lay down in the people's lap." He thinks kowtowing to the white Sturdyvant is his ticket to the top.

Levee has scores to settle, axes to grind, and his combustible unpredictability sounds a brassy note in what is essentially a genial band that accompanies Ma Rainey.

When Ma Rainey finally arrives with her entourage, her "gal" Dussie Mae (Kashi-Tara) and her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Kenyatta Rogers), it is as if someone turned on the heat and lights full-blast. To fully realize the hard-won majesty of Ma Rainey, you need a formidable actress, and Miss Fabrique has you sitting up straight and taking notice even before she sings one note.

In the eyes of Sturdyvant, Ma Rainey is a meal ticket, a dime-a-dozen blues singer whom the public just happens to want to hear. But Ma Rainey knows something that Levee, tragically, will never understand: You never let someone else define you. Ma Rainey defines herself as the queen, an imperious and demanding diva who uses the system the same way it uses her. They want her voice for an hour or two? Fine but they are going to pay for it, and on Ma's terms.

That Ma Rainey doesn't let anyone tell her who she is makes her a heroic figure, a female warrior. She is the embodiment of Toledo's philosophy that black folks will never achieve lasting success if they constantly look for approval from white people. They need to make their own way, stand in their own sun.

Whether or not Levee heeds Toledo's words or sees Ma Rainey beyond an old blues singer a bit behind the times is the central point of the play. Levee's urge to take action, make it big, harms his ability to see what is really there. When reality comes, harshly and irrevocably, Levee lashes out in his powerlessness.

What thrills you so much about this production is how all the musicality of Mr. Wilson's words is mined so utterly. Even when the cast isn't singing, the actors are a-swirl with melody and rhythm, so the whole play works like a jazz composition. The musical quality helps brings out the many comical moments; many productions of "Ma Rainey" often focus on its toughness and tragedy.

The dancing feel of the production is driven home by Mr. Derricks-Carroll's nimble-footed performance. He makes Slow Drag someone who not only plays music, but is music, from the inside out. He moves to unheard rhythms, yet in his good heart and guilelessness, his feet are firmly on the ground.

Mr. Derricks-Carroll forms a heavenly duet with Mr. Strothers' Toledo. A virtuoso on the piano keys as well as with his mouth, Mr. Strothers goes off on flights of fancy that take your breath away, always confident of landing safely, with Slow Drag right there to catch him.

Mr. Staples' Cutler is a man of deep feeling and dignity, a necessary grounding presence in the group especially when you have the unpredictable Levee, played by Mr. Lawrence with bristling, angry energy that occasionally goes over the top. Even a horn player needs to play in the lower ranges from time to time.

When everything works in a production of an August Wilson play, you feel as you do when you hear John Coltrane do "My Favorite Things" that the medium has been transcended and that what is being performed is not just words and notes, but something that sounds and feels like angel wings beating against your chest.


***1/2

WHAT: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" by August Wilson

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 29

WHERE: Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

TICKETS: $35 to $53

PHONE: 202/554-9066

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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