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Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David and Lillias White in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Mark Taper Forum (photo by Craig Schwartz)
Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David and Lillias White in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Mark Taper Forum (photo by Craig Schwartz)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Mark Taper Forum
Through October 16


At the Opening Night performance of director Phylicia Rashad’s powerful staging of playwright August Wilson’s modern classic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I found myself seated next to a gentleman who claimed to be one of the agents for one of the performers in the show. He promptly loosened his tie and shrugged off his blazer. “Better make myself comfortable,” he noted. “It’s kind of warm in here and Wilson doesn’t write short.”

Well, no, August Wilson doesn’t write short.  But I’m not sure you’d want him to. The power of his plays lies in his beautifully luxurious philosophical and polemical discourses, which are headily integrated within the fiercely burning desires of his characters.  Additional, compelling complexities are added by the play’s 1927 setting as well as the layers of racism and sheer class system resentment.

At a Chicago recording studio, members of the back up band for famous blues chanteuse Ma Rainey prepare to record her latest album.  Veteran pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) is fed up with the ambitious newly hired French horn player, Levee (Jason Dirden), who is hoping to drag the band into Jazz age with sexy fresh riffs.  This plan is also opposed by head trombonist Cutler (Damon Gupton), as well as by lead singer Ma Rainey (Lillias White), though not by the money-hungry white producer (Ed Swidey) who sees fast profits in a more syncopated beat.

As the men argue and rehearse, Wilson explores not merely the harsh lives of black people oppressed by a white-controlled world, but also the way rivals and friends in the same peer group can abrade each other. Rashad’s wonderful subtext-filled staging focuses eloquently on the characterizations, and on the way that each of the play’s central characters deals with the suffering brought on by the racism of that era.

In particular, the play presents a powerful contrast between the truthful and unpretentious conflicts among the musicians themselves — and the taut, strained interactions between musicians of color and their sleazy white producers. We see clearly how black artists with unbelievable talent must still kowtow to others for their survival.

Wonderful performances are offered by Dirden’s fiery Levee, whose escalating anger at his conservative fellow band mates is motivated by a harrowing incident from his childhood — and also by Turman as the beautifully wise and rather sad Toledo.  But our eyes are inevitably drawn back to White’s often searingly angry turn as Ma Rainey.  Amongst all the characters in Wilson’s play, she is the one with the most power.  Her talent can make everyone money, but it’s still undercut by the ruling white world, and this causes her to behave with a deliciously capricious and mischievous spite towards all the people who normally would boss her around.

Set designer John Iacovelli’s period piece set — a recording studio and a musty rehearsal space for the band — is beautifully atmospheric, as are Emilio Sosa’s colorful Harlem Renaissance costumes.  White’s luscious, beaded gown is particularly eye catching.  It’s undeniably a long evening, but there’s so much power and vigor to the show, you won’t notice the hours passing.

Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Avenue; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; through October 16.  (213) 628-2772 or  Running time: 3 hours with one intermission.