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Sunday, 15 April 2012 14:55

The Black Rep's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' examines the bad old days of race, rhythm and blues

Written by Connie Bollinger
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The Black Rep's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' examines the bad old days of race, rhythm and blues
blackrep.org

In the Black Rep production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the cancers of racial inequality and overt cruelty are laid bare with a finessed, punch-to–the-gut impact, one that left me with a renewed sense of outrage for a brand of casual racism that must never, ever be tolerated again.

This work by August Wilson, directed by Ed Smith, is a profound and eye-opening look at how it used to be back in the "bad old days," a cautionary tale that illustrates how far we've come, how far we have to go and how damaging it would be for our society to return to the days of racial exploitation and grinding prejudice that was common only a few decades ago.

Inside a recording studio in 1927 Chicago, a trio of older black musicians await the arrival of their diva, jazz singer par excellence Ma Rainey. Their gentle, good-natured reminiscences as they wait are fascinating and entertaining as they discuss everything from how to play the songs on their play list to memories of other times and other gigs. The conversation is altered abruptly by the late arrival of the fourth member of their band, young Levee, played by exceptional actor Ronald Connor. Derisive, aggressive, ambitious, and emotionally unstable, Levee takes hold of the action and drives it relentlessly to its shocking conclusion.

It was an absolute delight and a rare privilege to experience the acting talents of Antonio Fargas as Cutler, Ron Himes as Toledo and Erik Kilpatrick as Slow Drag. To a man, they crafted convincing, sensitive characters. jaki-terry plays Ma Rainey to the hilt, the perfect diva fully aware of her worth to the white record producer and her manager, and holding her musicians and all of her entourage in her iron fist. Evann Jones as Ma's "lady friend" Dussie Mae has lots of sass and strut and Maurice Demus as Ma's stuttering nephew, Sylvester, makes the most of his time on stage. Chad Morris plays the kowtowing manager, Irvin, and Tom Wethington is soulless record producer Sturdyvant. Both actors offered convincing, flawless performances.

I don't believe that lessons taught are necessarily lessons learned, but the destructive worm of racial inequality can only thrive when left to fester in the dark. August Wilson's play focuses the light of truth into the darkest corners of our moral vision.

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