Brilliant ‘Ma Rainey’ Explores 1920s Racism

“This world would be empty without the blues,” says legendary singer Ma Rainey (Yvette Freeman) as she discusses with her band the importance of the music they play, as well as life for African-Americans as they try to make their mark in a country dominated by whites. For her, the blues is the reality of blatant inequality in America as well as the incredible music that makes her life, no matter how hard, worth living.

It is this interplay that characterizes the Huntington Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s masterpiece “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directed by Liesl Tommy and running at the Boston University Theatre through April 8. The play combines fantastic acting that probes the relationships between the deeply flawed main chracters with live music played onstage by the cast members. Through this synthesis “Ma Rainey” explores the tensions of age and race that defined America in the 1920s and the music that transcended it.

“Ma Rainey” forms one part of August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a set of 10 plays—each one set in a different decade—that explores the African-American experience during the 20th century. The story revolves around the famous blues diva Ma Rainey­—who is respected and feared in equal measure because of her demanding temperment—and her back-up band: band leader and trombone player Cutler (G. Valmont Thomas) and bassist Slow Drag (Glenn Turner), the band’s veteran players, reminisce about old times on the road, while the old pianist Toledo (Charles Weldon) tries to impart some of his wisdom on the young, talented, and hot-headed trumpeter Levee (Jason Bowen). While the band members wait for Ma Rainey to arrive at a recording studio. In one scene their conversations become tense as Cultler and Levee argue over the direction of the band. After Ma arrives with her entourage, the band’s squabbles become framed by the conversations between the black musicians and the white businessmen who run the recording studio, and these dialogues highlight the racial exploitation at the heart of race relations in America.

The cast is incredible all around, but Bowen stands out from the rest. He plays up Levee’s faux easygoing nature in a way that brilliantly hints at the character’s fundamental insecurity, and this nuance makes the revelations about his past all the more shocking. For example, after Levee is teased by the rest of the band because his tough talk does not match up to how he bows and scrapes around the white recording studio executive Sturdyvant (Thomas Derrah), Bowen explodes. With a mix of fury and grief describes how he was forced to watch the rape of his mother by a gang of white men when he was a young child, and how he almost died when he tried to stop it. His voice becomes choked with a mixture of hopeless grief and unbound rage as he rips off his shirt to reveal the scar his attackers left on his chest.

Racism is not only characterized by acts of horrific violence, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” also explores with equal sensitivity the prejudice that enforced African-American’s status as second-class citizens. In one of the play’s more riviting scenes, Ma Rainey briefly drops her diva mask and explains that she has to be so demanding to the people she works with because it is the only way of getting the respect she deserves. She goes on to explain that although she has been working with her white manager Irvin (Will LeBow) for six years, the only time he ever invited her to his house was to sing for some of his white friends. Freeman relaxes her facial muscles and releases her tight sholders, physically showing the relief of a woman who after years of tension can finally for a moment let her guard down and show her true self.

Such scenes illuminate the motivations of all of the African-American characters. Everything from Levee’s hot-headedness to Cutler’s rigid obedience to Ma’s vision for the band can be read as a way of trying to recapture a sense of dignity that has been denied them because of the color of their skin. If Levee deals with the whites with a rambunctious individualism, Cutler attempts to convey a stern work ethic by double checking the setlist with Irvin and trying to force the band to play Ma’s arrangements of her songs. However, this does not stop him from smoking marijuana in the practice room with the rest of the musicians.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a seminal work by one of America’s most influential modern playwrights. It is a gripping narrative of the pain of racial inequality and the joys that music can bring, and the broken characters that society left by the wayside. By casting a bleak shadow over the so-called Roaring Twenties, “Ma Rainey” explores the men and women whose suffering and talent helped to create modern American music.

—Staff writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at nguiney@college.harvard.edu.

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