Ma Rainey's Black Bottom brings audiences back to the blues


Nov. 13, 2002, midnight | By Izaak Orlansky Marisa Schweber-Koren | 19 years, 6 months ago


Note: All pictures of Anthem on this page were taken by Scott Suchman and are property of Arena Stage.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. brings the troubles of a struggling 1920s black music group to a present day audience in an entertaining but powerful way. The August Wilson play follows the ups and downs of Ma Rainey and her back-up band as they try to cope with an oppressive and prejudiced society.

The play opens as Ma Rainey (Tina Fabrique) is late for a recording session in Chicago, allowing the four musicians to banter and argue about the role of the black man in the 1920s culture.

An understated set further sets the tone of the play. The stage includes a recording studio with a revolving platform to reveal a practice band room. Sophisticated metallic blue lighting complements the smoked glass windows, scuffed floor, and ancient piano of the stage.

Although Fabrique's booming voice demonstrates the unusual power Ma Rainey wields over her white manager Irvin (Hugh Nees) and even over the stingy record producer Sturdyvant (Timmy Ray James), Fabrique's melodramatic acting occasionally overshadows her character's role. At times her acting was even distracting and took away from the character's deeper purpose.

However, Ma Rainey is not the focus of the play as the title might suggest. Instead, director Tazwell Thompson chooses to highlight the struggles of bass player Slow Drag (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), piano player Toledo (Frederick Strother), trombone player Cutler (Hugh Staples), and trumpet player Levee (Gavin Lawrence).

The quartet blends together their experiences and personalities by telling various stories of their past: Toledo of his wife, Levee of his family, Cutler of his church, and Slow Drag of his dancing. Together they paint a picture of white oppression mixed with universal concepts of love, heritage, and revenge. Tazewell says that this storytelling is the core of the drama. "I think it's just telling the story, so that the actors interact with each other. The play is filled with storytellers…in a way, any play is about the relationships."

The discontent of the black musician is seen primarily through the character Levee, who spreads his anger into his fellow band mates instead of his real oppressor Sturdyvant. Entering the session, Levee believes that he will get a record deal only to face the harsh reality of the music industry. As Levee, Derricks-Carroll conveys his feelings to the audience by utilizing modern gestures and inflection.

While the play appears to be a musical, at heart it is a drama where music is only part of the story. The soulful Fabrique, the talented Lawrence, and the engaging Derricks-Carroll combine their musical skills to reproduce the spirit of 1920s blues. Along with the strategically placed speakers, the actors also had to learn their separate instruments in order to mime the music of Ma Rainey.

However, the play's charm that draws the audience in the beginning, wears out towards the last act. Long-winded speeches are no longer captivating but rather take away from the main purpose of the climactic end. Also, the confusing setup of the microphones and door placement on the stage distract from the action.

Not only is the play about the struggle of the black man in the 1920s but it also reveals themes of brotherhood, loyalty, self-awareness, and following one's heart. As for opening night, Strother summed up the feelings of the cast. "It felt great, after all the practices, the rehearsal and the improvisations, but as with all good things, the show opens."

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom runs through December 29 at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre
Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes
Visit Arena Stage for more information



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Izaak Orlansky. Izaak Orlansky is a senior in the Communications Arts Program. His hobbies include cross-country running, swimming, and singing in the spring musical. Izaak is also a big fan of the Yankees, and likes playing with big fluffy dogs. More »

Marisa Schweber-Koren. Marisa would like to start off by saying that Abby, I am afraid of editing your papers. She would like to continue by saying that she enjoys long walks with Mr. Mathwin, talking about elves, and above all, Dragon Ball Z. Marisa feels that without … More »

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