By Dwight Hobbes
Photo courtesy of the Gutherie Theater
Last time Penumbra Theatre Company did August Wilson’s hallmark drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, all, to say the least, did not go well. In fact, it was a train wreck.
Company member Terry Bellamy, playing the lead, “Levee,” tossed in a line that wasn’t Wilson’s, and next performance he simply wasn’t there when the stage manager called “Places!” The production shut down for three days while artistic director Lou Bellamy arranged to fly in a replacement from Houston.
Talk about star-crossed: There’d already been a problem with Wilson pulling rank to meddle with director Claude Purdy’s staging, weakening the production. Following his untimely departure, Terry Bellamy went into exile for give or take a decade. He is back now, working at Penumbra.
But when the curtain rose for this production at the Guthrie Theater, Terry Bellamy wasn’t in the cast. Which is too bad, because Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Lou Bellamy, called for an actor of compelling presence and considerable skill to convincingly portray the character whose force and fate drive the story.
On the other hand, it’s been ballyhooed and heavily promoted since the beginning of this season that area icon Jevetta Steele stars in the featured role as “Ma Rainey.” Steele, of course, is famous for her singing. However, the question loomed: How well can she act?
As it turns out, she’s pretty damned good, beautifully depicting a mean-as-a-snake diva wielding the proverbial iron hand to run her band, her girlfriend, and for that matter anything and everything to do with the recording session around which the play’s action revolves.
Steele is masterful. And, twice, gets to sing her hips off.
Another standout is company veteran Abdul Salaam El Razzac, returning in the role of laid-back, wisecracking philosopher “Toledo.” Razzac takes a perfectly measured, thoroughly engaging, wonderfully entertaining turn.
Also returning is Ashanti Young, who works well as Ma’s stuttering nephew “Sylvester,” a pampered sad-sack you can’t help but like. The part of “Dussie Mae” doesn’t call for a world of prowess — all the actor need do is look good in a form-fitting dress and smile a steady flow of admiring attention. The character is eye-candy. Specifically, Ma’s eye-candy. On which Levee definitely plans to lick, straining an already tenuous relationship between the boss and her trumpet player. That bill is exquisitely filled by Lerea Carter, who gives this particular tart sassy grace and no small amount of womanly allure.
Gifted company veteran James Craven disappoints. He races his lines and fails to inhabit the character “Culter,” giving a brittle, jittery performance devoid of dimension. William John Hall, Jr. as “Slow Drag” and James T. Alfred as “Levee” aren’t great shakes. Not that they’re vastly flawed; they just happen to be unremarkable. Since “Levee” carries the show as the script’s protagonist, you do want someone in that role with range, nuance, power.
Rounding out the cast, Phil Kilbourne plays Ma’s manager “Irvin,” Michael Tezla plays record producer ”Sturdyvant,” and Brendan Guy Murphy as a cop incurs Ma’s wrath. They all perform capably.
Lou Bellamy cut his Obie Award-winning reputation on his ability to virtually choreograph ensemble casts in dramas of profoundly moving consequence. August Wilson populates his plays with at least a half-dozen people. And he has, of course, written work of profoundly moving consequence. Accordingly, playwright and director, here, are a fine match. Two exceptions: the clearly fake fight scenes, and Bellamy’s telegraphing the evening’s climax with blocking that sucks life out of the air at exactly the worst possible moment.
This was Wilson’s career-launching hit that Caroly Bly, then director of the Playwrights’ Center, saved, telling him point blank to forget trying to get workshop cliques at the Center to take a Black author seriously and submit Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference competition.
It’s a gorgeously poetic powerhouse saga of what hell a man endures, pinning life’s hope to music that is ahead of its time (and someday will be very popular as a thing called jazz). As Levee is pushed past the point of reason, blindly driven in mad agony to commit a tragic act, Wilson delivers a jaw-dropping kick in the gut. It’s also a damning indictment of racist society.
A rule of thumb in scripting goes, “To deliver a message, send a telegram. Plays tell stories.” August Wilson both sent a bold message and told a strong story. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an unerring stroke of genius. And this production, ultimately, is well worth seeing.
August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs through Mar. 6 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 2nd St. S. in Minneapolis. Box office: 612-377-2224.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.