By Richard Ades
As near as I can tell, I’ve reviewed exactly one August Wilson play during all the decades I’ve been covering Columbus theater. That suggests there’s a real need for Short North Stage’s yearlong August Wilson Festival, which allows viewers to get acquainted with a prominent African-American playwright whose works are seldom seen locally.
However, it’s an open question whether the festival’s current production is the best way to get acquainted with Wilson. As seen in the Garden Theater’s intimate Green Room, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes off as talky and occasionally preachy.
Though that’s partly because the script itself is talky and occasionally preachy, I suspect it might be partly due to the way it’s presented by director Mark Clayton Southers and his cast. It’s not that the players aren’t strong. In a way, they’re too strong.
At last Thursday’s performance, nearly every scene was filled with so much heat and passion that there was little room for dramatic ebbs and flows.
One big caveat: This was a preview performance, so it’s possible Southers and his cast hadn’t finished honing the production. The director has done wonderful past work at Short North Stage (I’m thinking of 2013’s Passing Strange), so there’s no reason to believe he can’t get equally fine results out of the talented cast he’s assembled for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Set in the 1920s at a white-owned recording studio in Chicago, the play’s loose plot revolves around a recording session with real-life blues singer Ma Rainey (Wilma Hatton).
Arriving first are backup musicians Cutler (Chuck Timbers), Toledo (Will Williams), Slow Drag (R. Lawrence Jenkins) and Levee (Bryant Bentley). As the four squabble about matters both large and small, tensions develop among band leader Cutler, the philosophical Toledo and the ambitious Levee, who dreams of starting his own band. A major disagreement arises over Levee’s insistence that they perform his updated arrangement of the title song, which he claims is more in line with current tastes.
Meanwhile, studio owner Sturdyvant (Geoffrey C. Nelson) becomes nervous when Rainey doesn’t appear at the promised time and takes out his frustrations on her long-suffering manager, Irvin (Jonathan Putnam). It only makes matters worse when Rainey finally arrives with an angry cop (Ryan Kopycinski) in tow following a minor traffic accident. Adding to the confusion is her entourage: Dussie Mae (Rachel Bentley), her glammed-up girlfriend, and Sylvester (Taylor Martin Moss), her shy and stuttering nephew.
It’s a sign of the production’s problems that the character who generates the most sympathy in this black-centered drama is Rainey’s white manager, played by Putnam with a permanent hangdog expression. The character who generates the least sympathy is Rainey herself, who insists on getting her way no matter how unreasonable her demands. Hatton would make the character more likable—or, at least, more relatable—if she added a touch of vulnerability, making it clear that Rainey’s diva-like ways are a reaction to the white racism she’s had to fight throughout her career.
Bentley earns a little more of our sympathy as Levee, whose ambitions run into their own racist roadblock. But he and some of the other “musicians” need to moderate their portrayals to give a sense of progression as the play moves forward. On Thursday, their arguments tended to be equally fierce throughout, adding up to a fatiguing viewing experience.
Not surprisingly for a play set in a recording studio, the characters sometimes break into song. Hatton, Bentley and Jenkins all excel at bluesy vocals, while the other “musicians” do a good job of miming in time to the recorded accompaniment.
Rob Kuhn’s set design is full-featured despite having to depict two separate rooms in the cramped space. Cheryl M. El-Walker’s costume designs are colorful and era-appropriate.
First staged in 1984, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is part of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, which depicts African-American life in each decade of the 20th century. As such, it’s an important political and cultural document. With a little more honing, Short North Stage’s production could also become a rewarding dramatic experience.
NOTE: This production is historic for reasons beyond the play itself, as it’s an opportunity to see local theater stalwart Geoffrey Nelson one more time before his upcoming move to Louisville. It’s an added treat that he shares the stage with frequent collaborator Jonathan Putnam. Thanks to Short North Stage for arranging this nostalgia-filled reunion.
Short North Stage will present Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom through June 19 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.