Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Court Theatre

Brilliant and Balanced, Ma Rainey Raises the Roof

 Olglesby, Roston, Johnson, Smith, Alfred, Young, Cox and Spencer - H

Court Theatre presents:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

by August Wilson
directed by OJ Parson
runs thru October 18th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud


Alfred and Johnson - V In the Court Theatre program introduction to their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Ron OJ Parson contrasts his previous experience at Court with August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. “Working on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has been a different kind of experience . . . it feels to me like the work of a younger playwright . . . Ma Rainey’s is fast and brash like Levee, its central character.”

Not a bad analogy, between protagonist and play. But it’s not as if Wilson’s first major drama shortchanges the audience in layers of dilemma and meaning. Parson, for his part, deliberately and meticulously draws out every nuance and tier possible between those characters with power and those with less, and less.

John Culbert’s weathered, stressed and architectural set design surely assists Parson in establishing the play’s hierarchies of privilege and power. At its very bottom, the musicians wait and wait for Ma Rainey (Greta Oglesby), the Mother of the Blues, to arrive and hold court—at least for as long as the recording session goes on.

Time and generational differences, as much as races or genders, hold the crucial center to this play. The older musicians of Ma’s band, Toledo (Alfred H. Wilson), Cutler (Cedric Young), and Slow Drag (A.C. Smith) have long since learned how to bide their time by swapping stories and friendly BS; choosing the path of least resistance seems to be their life-long technique for deliberately surviving arduous, uncertain times and territory. But their low-key endurance may be too much for Levee (James T. Alfred), who aspires to make his mark with his own jazz compositions and band. To him, such coping strategies smack of compromise with the thousand indignities being black was (is) heir to.

Oglesby and cast - H Levee has far more going on with him than simple impatience or cocksure youthful arrogance. Parson’s direction starts Levee off at a low boil; but it is Alfred’s control, intensity, and fire which succeeds in pulling off Levee’s assault on Cutler, and his rant against God, with crucifying realism.

The play inexorably builds to this, through all the excruciating little deferrals and detours of Ma Rainey’s recording session. Humorous as it is, given Ma’s demand that her stuttering, country nephew Sylvester (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) intro her lead song, running underneath it all is the realization that Ma’s moment of glory is fleeting.

The recording company’s neurotic owner, Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox), insistently presses for fresher, faster music, whether he will pay decently for it or not. The money and privilege that Ma is flush with cannot last forever. There is something quite Biblical about this aspect of Wilson’s play, just as there is something downright Greek tragedy about Levee railing against God. It’s here we truly see the marks of a younger playwright.

cast of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - V Oglesby II - V

Oglesby, for her part, plays Rainey with willful blindness to the impending demise of her career, which doesn’t endear her to the audience, however deeply we identify with her pent up rage when she signs the release forms. She may lord herself over Levee and thwart his ambitions; she may boss her band, her entourage, and her manager; but the limits she bumps into truly close around her. Play the queen as much as she may, true power, which can only come from control over her own work, is not hers to have in this world. The same power denied her, is also denied Levee; what should make them natural allies ends up setting them against each other. The generational divide between Levee and the band also holds devastating consequences.

Overall, this production is too fine for a little critical kibitzing about pacing in some scenes. Court Theatre has a near perfect production on its hands. The entire cast is evenly and indisputably excellent. Even small roles leave lasting impressions, like David Chrzanowski’s smug Policeman, Stephen Spencer’s stressed out but enabling manager, Irvin, and Kristy Johnson, who seems born to play Ma’s woman, Dussie Mae. Now the audience just has to get there before time runs out.

Rating: ««««


The cast of Court Theatre’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

(fyi: I obtained this cast list (with pictures) from Court Theatre’s website.  Please visit their site for more information.)

Photo of Greta OglesbyGRETA OGLESBY most recently starred as Caroline in Caroline, or Change at the Guthrie Theatre. Other theatre credits include: Five Fingers of Funk, and Beggars’ Strike (Children’s Theatre Company); The Piano Lesson, Dinah Was, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, A Love Song for Miss Lydia, and Black Nativity (Penumbra Theatre); Gem of the Ocean, The Tempest, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Winter’s Tale and Two Gentlemen of Verona (Oregon Shakespeare Festival); Crowns (Guthrie Theatre); Salt Fish and Bakes (Mixed Blood Theatre); and Once On This Island, King Lear, The Furies (Ten Thousand Things Theatre.)


Photo of A.C. SmithA.C. SMITH has appeared at Court Theatre in The Piano Lesson, The First Breeze of Summer and Fences. He is always happy to return to a company that allows an actor to grow and be challenged at the same time. His portrayal of Troy Maxon in August Wilson’s Fences (Court) earned him the prestigious Jeff Award for lead actor in a drama. He has appeared at the Victory Gardens Theatre , Timeline Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Goodman Theatre, The Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, Illinois Theatre Center, Second City, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater to name a few.


Photo of Alfred H. Wilson

ALFRED H. WILSON is happy to be returning to Court Theatre.  Recent credits include August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf (Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati), and Radio Golf (Pittsburgh Public Theatre).  Chicago credits include Bourbon at the Border (Eclipse Theatre), Panther Burn (MMPAACT), Jitney and Two Trains Running (Pegasus Players), where he was awarded a Jeff Citation as best actor.  He has also worked at the Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens Theatre, and is a co-founder of Onyx Theatre Ensemble.



Photo of Cedric Young

CEDRIC YOUNG has worked at most of Chicago’s theatres as well as many regional houses. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is his debut on Court Theatre’s stage. Most recently he played Jesse in I Just Stopped By to See the Man at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Some other roles include: Troy in Fences, also directed by Mr. Parson, Walter Lee in A Raisin In the Sun, Turnbo in Jitney, Bynum in Joe Turner’s Come & Gone, Crixus in Coming of the Hurricane, and Sam in Master Harold & the Boys. Cedric has also appeared in many films and television series.



Photo of Thomas J. CoxTHOMAS J. COX is thrilled to return to Court Theatre, where he appeared in Fräulein Else and Raisin. Thom is a founding ensemble member of Lookingglass Theatre, where he has participated in over thirty productions since 1988. Other performing credits include Illinois Theater Center; Weston Playhouse Theatre Company (Vermont), Victory Gardens Theater, Northlight Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Company, Goodman Theatre, and film for The House Theatre. Directing Credits: Lookingglass; Eclipse; Piven Workshop; Weston. Film/Television credits: Since You’ve Been Gone (Miramax), Brotherhood (Showtime), and Chi-Girl (Van Lier Productions).


Photo of Stephen Spencer

STEPHEN SPENCER made his Court debut last season in Wait Until Dark. Chicago productions include Congo Square’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Goodman) and The House that Jack Built. As an Associate Artist at Chicago Dramatists he’s performed in countless new play readings and the Jeff Award winning The Liquid Moon. As a founding member of The Shakespeare Project he’s directed or performed in over 30 plays of the Canon. He’s worked regionally and overseas, touring throughout Russia, including Moscow’s Leninsky Komsomol Theatre. He also performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Recent film: Public Enemies; Morning Due (Cannes 2008) Son of America, and Greg’s Leg.


Photo of Kristy Johnson

KRISTY JOHNSON is thrilled to make her Court Theatre debut. Previous credits include: A Song for Coretta (Eclipse Theatre Company), It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play (Touring Company, American Theater Company), I Am Who I Am: The Story of Teddy Pendergrass (Black Ensemble Theatre), The Trial (eta Creative Arts Foundation) and others. In 2008, she received a Black Theatre Alliance Award for Most Promising Actress. Kristy is a graduate of Harvard University.



Photo of Kelvin Roston, Jr.

KELVIN ROSTON, JR. is happy to be making his Court Theatre stage debut. His last work with Court was as the music consultant for The Piano Lesson. Kelvin’s Chicago stage credits include Pill Hill (eta), To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (ITC), Saint James Infirmary (Congo Square), Drip (eta), and Get Ready (eta).  Other credits include: Dreamgirls, Death and the King’s Horseman, Guys and Dolls, Damn Yankees, Before it Hits Home, and many others.



Photo of James T. Alfred

JAMES T. ALFRED makes his Court Theatre debut in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This also marks his third of August Wilson’s ten play cycle. Other Wilson credits include Jitney and Fences, both directed by Obie Award Winning Director Lou Bellamy. Regional credits include The Glass Menagerie (Steppenwolf Theatre), To Kill a Mockingbird (Arizona Theatre Company/KC Rep), RedShirts (Penumbra/Round House Theatre), Romeo and Juliet (American Repertory Theatre), and The Baccae (Moscow Art Studio Theatre). James T. Alfred is a graduate of the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University and holds an M.F.A in Acting from the Moscow Art Theatre School.


Photo of David Chrzanowski

DAVID CHRZANOWSKI is delighted to be working with Court Theatre for the first time. Other Chicago productions include work at: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Victory Gardens, Polarity Ensemble Theatre, Chicago Children’s Theatre, Lifeline, Silk Road Theatre Project, The Goodman Theatre, and Apple Tree Theatre. Regional work includes stops at: Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (six seasons), Kentucky Shakespeare (four seasons), Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Performance Network in his home town of Ann Arbor, and many colleges throughout the Midwest.


Ma Rainey’s Creative/Techical Team

AUTHOR: August Wilson
LIGHTING: Marc Stubblefield
SOUND: Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli
COSTUME DESIGN: Jacqueline Firkins

2 Responses

  1. “plays Rainey with willful blindness to the impending demise of her career”. there is no part of ma that is “blind” to her fate – this is a woman who understands the methodology of manipulating the system – something that levee never quite gets a hold of. ma is constantly attempting to maintain leverage. thus her constant delays on the recording session – getting what she can get before she’s signed away her voice and the white men don’t need her anymore. if you’re gonna give a production 4 stars, at least understand what you’re talking about.

    • Dear Gareth,

      While I certainly appreciate your take on the role of Ma Rainey, there is some question of why Ma does not adjust her music to the times. Does she fear being upstaged by Levee and losing control of the direction of her music? Is she taking a particular artistic stand about the preservation of her style of blues? Is she even interested in expanding her audience beyond black listeners? Does she even perceive the need for change to address the times?

      We are familiar today with a popular artist’s attempts to recreate themselves in order to cross over or maintain audience interest. Madonna has done it so many times, it’s practically cliche for her. Yet all these questions regarding the role of Ma Rainey are left hanging ambiguously by Wilson and are pretty much up to the director and cast to make decisions about. Ma does engage in delaying tactics in order to maintain leverage within the confines of the studio session, but it is not clear whether that is the limit of her strategy to maintain control. If it is her only strategy for maintaining power, it will ultimately not be enough. These petty attempts at manipulation will ultimately not preserve her career.

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