His hopes are ridiculed by the piano player, Toledo (Skye Williams), who insists that the future of the black race lies with their African heritage. Ties to family and community are the answer, he says, not conquering white America.
Williams appropriately plays Toledo with a quiet reserve. Portraying Toledo's philosophical opposite, Springs skillfully invests Levee with both an infectious optimism and a simmering rage, which boils over in the drama's explosive climax. As Toledo and Levee argue over justice, Thompson movingly portrays Cutler, who has put his faith in the next world. Baker's Slow Drag, meanwhile, just affably tries to get along.
All this talk about finding one's place in the world really makes no difference to Ma Rainey (Charlette Seward), because she considers herself the center of the universe. When she finally arrives, she bursts into the studio with a white policeman (Albert Acevedo) on her tail. It seems she's just been involved in a fender-bender, and he's looking for a bribe to let her off the hook. But Rainey is too busy throwing her weight around, demanding more heat in the studio and a return to the original opening of her song. In fact she demands that the old introduction, a speaking part, be delivered by her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (humorously played by Gerald Pizzaro).
While dominating the stage as the forceful Rainey, Seward also evokes the underdog in the singer, who has to fight for respect. Alone with Cutler, Rainey points out that she's been invited to her manager's house only once, when Irvin needed her to sing for a group of white friends. The only place she has any power, she explains, is the recording studio. As soon as a record's been cut, the white folks move in and take everything. So, until then, Rainey plans to ride roughshod over everyone, including her new main squeeze, a gold-digging white woman named Dussie Mae (Tanya Bravo).
Bravo plays Dussie Mae with a greedy glee that spells trouble as she flirts with Levee, telling him that all she needs to be won over are lots of gifts. Levee's relationship with the woman and failed negotiations with Sturdyvant are what lead him, in the play's finale, to lash out.
Keeping the focus squarely on the characters, Davis deftly mixes the play's subplots and comes up with an enlightening slice-of-life production. Helping her is the strongest ensemble cast of the season, offering portrayals so well-rounded that the black characters stay off the soapbox and the white characters avoid twirling their villainous mustaches.
While it's set in a recording studio, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom doesn't offer much music. When Seward and her fellow actors do perform, they're backed up by a tape recording. But the dialogue, filled with colorful stories and seductive rhythms, is music enough. And the music, of course, is the blues. Ma Rainey, in the play's second of two acts, says, "Blues is life's way of talking to you."
Of course the only way that Wilson can "talk" to audiences in South Florida is if his work is produced here. Given the recent shutterings or extended hiatuses of the area's few black theater troupes (Miami's M Ensemble Company, West Palm Beach's Quest Theatre, and Fort Lauderdale's Vinnette Carroll Repertory Company), it's the responsibility of other regional houses to make room for black plays. And when it comes to staging works by Mr. Wilson, August should come more than once a year.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Written by August Wilson. Directed by Ellen Davis. Starring Charlette Seward, Wayne Thompson, Skye Williams, Roland Baker, and Kevin Springs. Through March 1. The Little Stage, 2100 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 305-254-8502.