Theater Review: August Wilson’s Ma Rainey at the Court Theatre

By Edith McCauley

Theater Critic

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opened on Broadway in 1984 and was the beginning of August Wilson’s work that evolved into a decade-by-decade exploration of the African-American experience in the 20th century. Having been fortunate enough to see his entire repertoire, it is with a deep understanding that the first play, written by an emerging playwright later to receive nearly every award in theater, gives us a special perspective.

In the late ’80s, we saw Ma Rainey… at a small theater housed in a church on Bryn Mawr in Chicago. It later became a space for Onyx Theatre Ensemble, whose founder, Ron OJ Parson, directs the current production. Harry Lennix played Levee, later reprising the same role at the Goodman. At Court, James T. Alfred is the young musician striving to overcome a life impacted by the racism of the 1920s. An amazing actor, he brings to the stage the drama of Wilson’s story that kept the audience riveted every moment.

In the discussion following the performance, Parsons and Alfred shared with the audience the challenges met in bringing Ma Rainey… to the stage. Set in a recording studio in Chicago, the four-piece band, consisting of Cutler (Cedric Young), Toledo (Alfred H. Wilson), Slow Drag (A.C. Smith) and Levee arrive for the session. August Wilson’s forte is his storytelling ability. Much of this goes back to the oral tradition of African-Americans and becomes the device that moves the work forward. In the 1920s, slavery and the racism existing throughout the country impacted the entire society.

Greta Oglesby is Ma Rainey, and she arrives with her entourage, Dussie Mae (Kristy Johnson) and nephew, Sylvester (Kelvin Roston Jr.). Her manager, Irvin (Stephen Spencer), is constantly working to settle the conflicts between Ma and producer Sturdyvant (Thomas Cox), not an easy task. Based on the recording industry, audiences assumed the play was a musical. In fact, Parsons said many left the theater when the play first ran in 1984.

August Wilson has, over the years, protected the integrity of his creations, refusing to have them made into movies and insisting that nothing be cut. First-time audiences encounter a lengthy evening of theater. Ma Rainey… , the work of a young man, reveals the deep feelings of the playwright, and Levee becomes his voice. I can’t remember when I so enjoyed a performance, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is highly recommended.

As the play runs only through Oct. 19, do try to see this great show. Call (773) 753-4472 for ticket information. The theater is located on the University of Chicago campus at 5535 S. Ellis Ave., easily accessible by driving south on Lake Shore Drive and with free parking next to the theater.

From the September 30 – October 6, 2009 issue.

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