Drama at Suzanne Roberts Theatre benefits from good casting and straightforward production values.
In a season in which one-act plays are the norm rather than the exception, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of August Wilson’s drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom reminds us what a great three-hour play looks like.
Debuting on Broadway in 1984, Ma Rainey was the second installment of Wilson’s 10-play, multiple-Pulitzer-winning Pittsburgh Cycle, in which each play chronicles the African-American experience in a different decade of the 20th century. The intense work was the first of Wilson’s plays to reach Broadway, and its success announced Wilson as a major new American playwright.
Brimming with richly drawn characters, Ma Rainey is set in 1927 at a Chicago recording studio (it’s the only play in the cycle not set in Pittsburgh) where self-proclaimed “mother of the blues” singer Ma Rainey and her band are scheduled to record.
To her credit, director Irene Lewis (who serves as the artistic director of Baltimore’s CenterStage, which is co-producing Ma Rainey with the Philadelphia Theatre Company), doesn’t attempt to tame the play’s raw emotion. Instead, she embraces the anger and passion in Wilson’s writing, and this straightforward, extremely well-cast production is the better for it.
The production is astounding in its simplicity; the simple design choices and Lewis’ unadorned directorial approach funnel attention straight to the story. The set (which employs song titles imposed on the walls of the studio) rarely calls attention to itself, nor do the show’s authentic costumes (with the exception of the eye-popping dresses worn by Butler and Tocarra Cash, who plays Ma’s love interest Dussie Mae).
As band members wander in to rehearse and wait on the perpetually late Rainey (the scintillating E. Faye Butler), they aimlessly chat about things ranging from footwear to song arrangements. The men’s conversations seem mundane, but they are small revelations of what it is to be black in a white man’s world.
One of the four studio musicians, young horn player Levee (an intense Maurice McRae) is a time bomb of anger. Haunted by horrors whites inflicted on his family, Levee nonetheless believes the empty promises offered by a white producer who wants to buy his songs. When he finally lashes out, though, his rage is tragically misdirected.
As intense as McRae’s Levee is, it’s still the titular Ma who dominates both the session and the production. While Butler has the vocal chops to highlight Ma’s musical prowess (Butler captured a Barrymore Award for her performance in PTC’s production of Dinah Was), she chooses to focus on Ma as a woman of contradictions. When angry, as she often is, she can be loud, obstinate and critical. When moved, she is maternal and patient. She enjoys making her white manager Irv (Merwin Goldsmith) bow to her whims, but is a realist about her limited place in the scheme of things.
Lewis’ production likewise chooses not to highlight Ma Rainey’s musical elements. There's a lot of talk, but very little playing (the music, unlike Butler’s voice, sounds prerecorded). Instead, in the hands of her capable cast, it is the lives of the characters that make this production so compelling.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Through June 13.
Suzanne Roberts Theatre
Broad and Lombard sts
Calendar: Sept. 2-9