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: ««««

 

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Review: Court Theatre’s “The Piano Lesson”

Blossoming with music, Court’s ‘Piano Lesson’ mixes family tensions and struggles with a dash of the paranormal.

Chicago's Court Theatre produces August Wilson's masterpiece "The Piano Lesson" 

The Piano Lesson 
Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Watching Court Theatre’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” by August Wilson, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The Cherry Orchard.”, by Anton Chekov. Although the play is distinctively American, elements in the Pulitzer Prize-winner are very similar to Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece. Set in 1936, characters descended from slaves attempt to move up in the world as the sons of plantation owners join the ranks of the rural poor; Wilson’s Boy Willie is sort of a black Lopakhin. Directed by Wilson veteran Ron OJ Parson, the Court’s “Piano Lesson” is a very effective snapshot of the American experience, with a tantalizing ghost story weaved in.

_msb1226__large Along with “Wait Until Dark,” this is the second production in the Court’s season that has features of a thriller flick. The fourth entry in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” but the fifth to be written, “The Piano Lesson” records family tension and the African-American struggle in the 20th Century with a dash of the paranormal.

Like most of the cycle, the central conflict pits progressing in the modern world against reverence for the past. This conflict is symbolized by a beautiful piano that has a haunting presence around it. The piano is inherited to siblings Boy Willie (the lively Ronald L. Conner) and Berneice (Tyla Abercrumbie), with the former wishing to sell it to buy land and the latter fighting to keep the ancestral instrument. It is slowly revealed that piano has cost a lot of blood over its lifetime, and a few of the deceased may have followed the piano to Berneice’s home in Pittsburgh.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Although no one actually teaches a piano lesson, the production blossoms with music. Mournful jazz numbers are played by musician Wining Boy (Alfred H. Wilson), and Boy Willie lays down a short dancehall tune. One of the best scenes of the play is when nearly all of the male characters join together in a powerful, rhythmic work song. Just like the piano, the music is a child of the characters’ heritage, offering them (and the audience) an escape, a celebration, and a shared experience. The songs are brilliantly scripted and nailed by this talented cast, tapping deep into the underlying themes.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Conner is an energetic and stubborn Boy Willie, bristling with youthful drive. He’s grounded by his friend Lymon, played by a charismatic Brian Weddington. The older generation in the play, Alfred H. Wilson’s funny Wining Boy and A.C. Smith as the peacekeeping Doaker, add a deeper level of humanity to the play and present a welcome break from Boy Willie’s and Berneice’s constant bickering.

PianoLesson-hairThe fighting between the siblings is where the production falters. The battle quickly stalemates and the repeated arguments loose focus. Abercrumbie’s cold portrayal of Berneice doesn’t help, either. It seems like the production wants the play to be Berneice’s story, but Conner’s Boy Willie is much more interesting and sympathetic. Another stumbling block for the play is the character of Grace (Alexis J. Rogers), Boy Willie’s and Lymon’s 10-second love interest that doesn’t seem to have much of a point for the story.

Parson’s interpretation of the script, though, is layered and gives credence to both sides of the conflict. The realistic heart of the play, the music, and the campfire ghost story aspects are all well-realized. Keith Pitts’ set is intricate and allows for plenty of play for the actors. The physical presence of the paranormal is fascinatingly done, and the titular piano is elaborately detailed. The ghosts are far from a hokey gimmick. The invisible characters that encroach on the family’s struggle illuminate Wilson’s themes of family, tradition, and connection to the past.

Rating: «««

Other reviews of The Piano Lesson:  TimeOut Chicago, SteadStyle Chicago

 

PianoLesson-openarms

Cast List and Creative Team – after the fold…

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