In short, when Bond scheduled himself to
direct this play in the season’s first slot, instead of the
African-American parfait musical Crowns, he was leading with his chin. And he emerges with his chin held high, unscathed.
Simultaneously, Bond also slays the
chimera of comparisons with Tazewell Thompson, although the thought to
do so may never have entered his mind. Thompson, a previous
African-American company leader, is a brilliant stage director whose
greater acclaim was reached after leaving town, despite his unhappy,
short tenure here. Thompson favored marginal, now-forgotten works like
Cheryl L. West’s Jar the Floor or Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s From the Mississippi Delta, which could be transmogrified into gold through his deft directorial hand. He never brought us August Wilson.
Thompson, additionally, did not get on
well with black Syracuse, while Bond has hired Carol Charles to be
“community engagement manager.” Her task is to make more potential
black subscribers feel that Syracuse Stage is their place, too. On
opening night many black community leaders were invited to pre-curtain
dinner in the Sutton Pavilion.
Wilson is hardly a stranger to Syracuse audiences, where his Fences first appeared 17 years ago. The previous administration brought us three Wilson plays, The Piano Lesson (1996), Jitney (2002) and Gem of the Ocean (2007), but reputedly shied away from Ma Rainey
because the costs for eight Equity players would break the bank. This
production further underscores Bond’s blessings from the powers that be
at Syracuse University in that he has attracted powerhouse players, not
household names, perhaps, but performers who already know this show and
Wonder mike: Ebony Jo-Ann (center) takes the stage for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Syracuse Stage. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Copious notes in the newly designed
program (smaller print, shorter page) remind us that Gertrude “Ma”
Rainey (1886-1939) was a real person who recorded the blues in the
1920s, earning big bucks for white record producers. Black bottom was
originally a term for the poorest ghetto that was applied to a briefly
popular dance. The 78 rpm recording of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was
indeed a hit. What happened at the actual 1927 recording session in
wintry Chicago is Wilson’s license to imagine.
Four black musicians and two white men
wait in a seedy recording studio for the great blues singer to arrive,
and she’s taking her time. “They’re always late,” Ma’s white manager
Irvin (Kenny Morris) explains. Meanwhile, the musicians swap stories,
and the two white guys, including the studio owner Sturdyvant (John
Ottavino), opine that they’d just as soon be in the clothing business.
Each of the musicians is paired with an
instrument and speaks for a different point of view. Trombonist and
band leader Cutler (Cortez Nance) is fatalistic and weary. Bassist Slow
Drag (Doug Eskew) exudes a good humor that does not mask his knowledge
of racial humiliation. Pianist Toledo (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), the
oldest of the group, is the most politically aware, although his
tendency to use more words than he needs makes him a kind of black
Finally, there is young trumpeter Levee
(Warner Miller), who already bears a scar across his chest, an emblem
of white injustice and oppression. Something of a dandy, Levee sports
new spectator shoes and is driven by multiple lusts: for the young
beauty in Ma Rainey’s party (and her lesbian lover), Dussie May
(Danielle Lenee), to make his
own music and to break out of the shabby confines his part of the stage represents.
On her eventual arrival, Ma (Ebony
Jo-Ann) turns out to be a massive, sequined diva in a bright red dress.
Just as we are becoming interested in the tangles of the musicians on
the lower level, she snaps us to attention. Reeling with attitude, she
will take no guff from the white men and demands that they employ her
nephew Sylvester (James F. Miller) as a wholly unnecessary emcee on the
recording, despite his prominent stutter.
Ebony Jo-Ann, who has also played this
role at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., delivers a bravura
performance. Her Ma becomes a great natural force, a whirlwind of comic
truculence, and a blues singer that honors the original Ma Rainey’s
Well before the conclusion of the action
we realize that Ma Rainey has been used. For all her bullying of the
white staff, she’s
earning a trifling $200 to achieve recorded immortality. Her success is
but a shabby imitation of white stardom. Down with the musicians, we
have heard wise old Toledo tell us, “We done sold ourselves to the
white in order to be more like him.”
For audiences who know nothing of this
celebrated play, the perception that we should be paying more attention
to the four musicians, who we’re first almost tempted to ignore, comes
as something of a jolt. That, of course, is precisely Wilson’s point.
Ma Rainey’s star faded long ago, but the blues, and the music Levee
wants to write, are very much with us. Of all Wilson’s plays, Ma Rainey
is the most tendentious in its condemnation of white racism and the
ways that malign presence in our history also turned blacks against.
That doesn’t make the play agitprop, rather that it asks us to examine
the human costs of living in this society.
If Bond’s stage direction always gives
us humor and crackling tension in a well-tooled package, we’re in for a
good run. He gets top performances all around, especially from Warner
Miller as Levee and Thomas Jefferson Byrd as Toledo. William
Bloodgood’s set design contributes mightily to the story, especially
how greatly different the white area is from the black. Helen Q.
Huang’s costumes, notably for the title character, enhance the spoken
The only flaw in the production is
Bond’s measurement of the Archbold’s Theatre’s acoustics. In this
reviewer’s informal survey, seven playgoers on opening night reported
being unable to hear key words and gag lines. An eighth, a Syracuse
Stage employee, reported no problems.
This production runs through Oct. 4. See Times Table for information.