• Title: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Written by: August Wilson
  • Director: Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
  • Actors: Alana Bridgewater, Lovell Adams-Gray, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards, Virgilia Griffith, Lindsay Owen Pierre
  • Company: Soulpepper Theatre
  • Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • Rating: 4 stars

Bob Dylan famously paired Ma Rainey with Beethoven in his 1965 song Tombstone Blues. It was a felicitous match: Ma was not only a groundbreaking artist like Ludwig, she also appears to have shared his stormy artistic temperament.

In the sizzling Soulpepper Theatre production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the seminal African-American blues singer, played with fiery humour by Alana Bridgewater, makes a late entry in Act 1 by bursting through the doorway of a Chicago recording studio like a tornado in a shimmering green dress. The entourage trailing in her wake includes her young female lover, her timid nephew and a white cop who wants to arrest her for assaulting a cab driver.

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Alana Bridgewater in the central role of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Cylla von Tiedemann

Before long, the tempestuous Ma is flatly rejecting a jazzy new arrangement of one of her classic songs, stubbornly insisting that her stuttering nephew perform its spoken intro and refusing to record at all until she gets a bottle of Coke.

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Yet, behind her diva behaviour, Ma, a.k.a. Gertrude Rainey, a.k.a. the Mother of the Blues, lets us see that she’s a wise woman who knows she can get away with murder only as long as she’s making money for the white folks. That perilous racial relationship is at the heart of this powerful play by the late August Wilson, which burst like a bombshell on Broadway back in 1984.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the work that announced Wilson as a major new dramatist and launched his monumental Century Cycle – a series of 10 plays (including the Pulitzer Prize winners Fences and The Piano Lesson) that depict African-American life decade by decade in the 20th century. Ma Rainey’s is set in the 1920s and captures a time when “coloured music” was beginning to enjoy commercial success, even as its makers continued to be treated as second-class citizens or worse.

While Ma tops the bill, Wilson’s main focus is on the four musicians that make up her band. They include the easygoing leader Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre), the philosophical piano player Toledo (Beau Dixon), the elderly bass man Slow Drag (Neville Edwards) and the slick, hot-headed young trumpet soloist Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray). While the three others are session men, content to play the tunes and collect their money, Levee has bigger ambitions. He’s the one who’s come up with that swinging modern arrangement Ma refuses to use, preferring to stick to her tried-and-true rural sound, which Levee dismisses as “jug-band music.”

Levee is riding on a promise that Ma’s white producer, Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros), will record his new songs. But that doesn’t keep him from constantly arguing with the others and risking his employer’s wrath by dallying with her girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith). The troubled son of a Mississippi sharecropper, his anger and instability turn out to stem from horrific acts of racism in his past.

We learn of this and other revelations when the musicians rehearse in the basement band room, while Ma holds court in the studio upstairs and Sturdyvant looks down from his perch in the sound booth – all three locations designed with shabby period flavour by Ken MacKenzie on a tiered set.

Impeccably acted and directed with cool confidence by emerging talent Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Soulpepper’s production has a slow-burning energy. It eventually erupts: first joyously, when Ma and her band perform the title song, and then later, horribly, in shattering scenes of violence.

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A scene from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a production of Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto.

Cylla von Tiedemann

You might at first wonder why this play set during a recording session has only two full musical numbers, but listen more closely: Wilson is giving us, in his fine ear for dialect and his characters’ rhythmic riffs on various themes, the incomparable music of African-American English. Ma Rainey and her musicians don’t just play the blues, they speak the blues. And when Levee and Dussie Mae flirt, it makes for a delightfully saucy duet complete with the barnyard metaphors of classic blues songs.

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Adams-Gray is superb as Levee, the agitated, volatile outsider, who keeps stamping the floor with his fancy new Florsheim shoes like a skittish horse. He finds his calm contrast in Dixon’s professorial Toledo, whose many interests include the Back-to-Africa movement. More than a personality clash, their ultimately tragic adversity reveals how a lifetime of soul-crushing racism infects its victims, turning brother against brother.

Alongside them are carefully crafted performances from Pierre as the reefer-loving but religious Cutler and Edwards as simple soul Slow Drag. The actors are also capable musicians and Dixon much more than that – his blues-piano playing is stellar. Then there’s Bridgewater, whose vocal power we know from Soulpepper’s Spoon River, doing a delicious Ma Rainey impersonation at the microphone.

The supporting cast is also spot-on, including Alex Poch-Goldin as Ma’s harried Jewish manager, Griffith as the coquettish Dussie Mae and Marcel Stewart as the speech-afflicted nephew that Ma has gently taken under her wing.

Having already produced the work of other important African-American playwrights, from Lorraine Hansberry to Suzan-Lori Parks, it’s gratifying to see Soulpepper finally tackle the towering Wilson. Let’s hope Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is only the first of his plays to appear on its stages.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues to June 2 (soulpepper.ca).