Saturday, February 19, 2005

Play: August Sings the Blues

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson, Seattle Rep, through 19 February.

One of the down sides of the Lovely Bride's tax preparation career is we move all plays from our season tickets out of late January/Early February, and out of late March/April, as this is part of the "Tax Rush". The result is that we have a Late Feb/Early March bumper crop of plays all bunching up on another. Another result of all this shifting around is that we see plays on the very last day of their run.

Which is just as well, because I am not a great August Wilson fan (and I say this knowing he is a Seattle resident, and I have even seen him, at a distance, when he was prepping King Hedley II a few years back). I have seen a lot of August Wilson's work, in Pittsburgh (he writes about the Hill District), in Milwaukee, and now in Seattle. And while I recognize that he has become the "go-to-guy" for the African-american experience on stage, the proverbial Spike Lee of theatre, I find myself frustrated with his work. The "Wilson-in-a-nutshell" is: A lot of people yell at each other until somebody pulls a weapon and kills someone else - and it takes a fair amount of stage time to get there.

Here's the rundown on Ma: A group of black blues performers meet at a white-operated recording studio to make a new record for Ma Rainey, the mother of the blues. Ma is late, and once she gets here, is an imperious diva making demands and generally raising the stress level. Add to this the conflicts among the musicians themselves, in particular between the young upstart Levee (Alvin Keith) who deplores the "jug music" of the more traditional band members, and Cutler (Wendell W. Wright), who acts as band spokesperson with the hot-tempered Ma, and so we have a lot of people yelling at each other.

Wilson is unafraid to show his characters as flawed individuals, and this is a wonderful thing about his work. Ma Rainey, well-performed by Cynthia Jones, stands her ground on her issues, including the ones she is dead wrong about (she wants to give a part on the record to her stuttering nephew). Young bluesman Levee is equal parts progress and ego, dream and rage. Cutler is proud tradition and weary acquiesence. Characters are completely right and with the next sentence, going plunging into wrongness, and seem natural when they are doing it.

Wilson's word is a violent one as well, and much of the play involved smack-talk among the musicians, which weaves between good-natured, time-killing arguments, and heavy-duty challenges that are just half-a-word away from someone throwing a punch. Wilson obliderates that line over time, and the action of the play seamless starts with the first line and ends up with the shiv stuck into the ribs, a smooth and understandable process. Wilson layers his characters enough, and spends enough time with them, that you see what is happening as it unfolds, and all becomes a deeper tragedy for it.

The company is excellent, though to be frank, I would have preferred the musicians to have a bit more musical chops - the instruments wait their masters too long on the stage, and the "rehearsal" consists of a lot of arguing and very little rehearsing. Wright and Larry Ballard (who plays Ma's flustered, frustrated agent), are particularly good as men who have had to learn to deal with the unpleasant and unbending realities around them.

I'm still not a fan of August Wilson, but Ma Rainey holds together well, and rates up there with Joe Turner's Come and Gone as one of his good ones.

More later,