Friday, February 12, 2010

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Renaissance Guild, San Antonio, February 5 - 21

San Antonio's Renaissance Guild has put a powerful interpretation of August Wilson's 1984
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom on the makeshift stage at the Little Carver Civic Center.

This is the only one of the ten plays in Wilson's "Pittsburgh cycle" depicting African-American lives across the twentieth century that is not, in fact, set in Pittsburgh. The locale is Sturdyvant's shabby recording studio in Chicago in the mid-1920's, where the impatient record distributor is waiting for the idolized blues singer Gerturde "Ma" Rainey to show up with her band for a session. Rainey's manager Irvin, a white man, reassures Sturdyvant but frets, worries and jumps about. Soon enough, we'll understand why.

Four session musicians show up on time, with no word from "Ma." Irvin packs them off with a song list and instructions to rehearse until "Ma" gets there.

The heart of this play is this four-man ensemble. They're familiar with one another, and like most performers, they're familiar with waiting. Slow Drag the bassist and Cutler the trombonist are there "just to play the music." Toledo the pianist, a man of ordinary intellect but with a passion for reading and ideas, is haunted by the white world's disregard for black folk. Trumpeter Levee has a disdainful attitude -- he has ambitions and wants to play the new jazz, "not this old stuff."

Wilson's dialog is rich, idiomatic and surprising. This company delivers it with conviction and superb realization of the characters. The audience on opening night hung on every word and there were audible gasps at particularly dramatic or unexpected turns in the musicians' exchanges with one another.

Arthur Bouier as the ambitious Levee is sharp and restless, a man on perpetual boil. He's the hero and victim of this piece, which is a modern modulation of the classic tragedy. Levee desires fiercely to achieve the breakthrough and release of a greater art, and he struggles angrily with other band members, with dismissive attitudes from his employer and the recording studio, and -- in a riveting monologue that's even harsher than that I remember from Wilson's script -- with God Himself.
His ambition leads to overreaching and turns back on him in devastating fashion.

That's the through-line of this piece, but there is much more to it. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is full of humor and audacious attitude. Tamara Cline-Russell as "Ma" does eventually turn up and she's bigger than life. She commands everyone and she knows exactly how push the white men's buttons. If they want her voice in that recording machine, they had better by God give her stuttering nephew Sylvester the job of recording the intro, they'd better get her new automobile fixed, they'd better get rid of this intrusive policeman complaining about a fender bender, and they'd better understand that she is not -- NOT -- going to play those new-fangled arrangements that Levee has cajoled the studio to accept.

Director Antoinette Wilson and her talented company bring all of this to vivid life. We do get to hear Cline-Russell sing "Ma" Rainey's Black Bottom in a confident, bouncy version very similar to the original (available, by the way, on YouTube). The actors aren't musicians; they have to mime their to a recording played over the sound system, but that draws our attention only for a moment.

Kevin Majors as Toledo, Charles Riley as Slow Drag, and Michael Gray as Cutler create for us the world of those many now nameless working African American musicians in Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans and elsewhere who established a culture and a music that became all American. Clifford Ross as Sylvester the stuttering nephew and Shaundra Lamkin as coy, flirtatious niece Dussie Mae are funny, human and appealing. David Clingan as white businessman Sturdyvant and Steven Valdez as the jumpy manager Irvin give us vigorous portraits of decent white guys from another time, who have absolutely no clue and no access to the rich inner lives of the African American characters.

Recalling Cutler's pick-up prior to the music: "One. . . two . . . You know what to do. . . ," I can only agree. Antoinette Winstead and the Renaissance Guild know what to do with this material. They do it in style, in depth, and with exciting clarity, and they play it through February 21.

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