Look Ma, No Royalties

Having to wait for one month out of the year to buy candy hearts with cute sayings imprinted on them is no big deal. After all, those hard little wafers have lost much of their appeal now that they're more likely to break my aging molars than attract a valentine. It's an outrage, however, that I have to wait until February, and the advent of Black History Month, to find playwright August Wilson and talented local black actors on area stages. At the Little Stage in Miami Beach, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom delivers both, along with something else that's been in short supply: a terrific evening of theater.

Ellen Davis, a retired faculty member of the New World School of the Arts in Miami, expertly directs the show, and as producer she put up her own money to pay the ten-member cast and rent the 85-seat, black-box theater. The result is a moving show that shames the region's more established theaters, which have failed to present Wilson's award-winning works, including Fences (a Pulitzer and a Tony), The Piano Lesson (another Pulitzer) and, of course, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (a New York Drama Critics Circle Award).

While other theaters regularly reach out, and often pander, to South Florida's diverse audiences by producing plays about Hispanics, Jews, gays, and seniors, they rarely explore the black experience. Some complain that it's too tough to find enough talented black actors to fill a cast; yet, almost every year, several local black actors are nominated for and/or awarded Carbonell Theater Awards for outstanding performances. Others argue that, in a mostly white market, black-oriented productions are box-office poison. Explain that to the black touring companies that come through town and do quite well. The fact is, a good play, no matter what its racial makeup, touches just about everyone.

August Wilson's plays are outstanding. Produced in regional theaters across the country, his six major works (Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars round out the repertoire) are each set in a different decade and feature characters searching for a sense of self while participating in the black race's struggle for recognition and a national identity.

In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the setting is a Chicago recording studio in 1927. Ma Rainey, "The Queen of the Blues," is due any minute to kick off a recording session. The real-life Gertrude Pridgett Rainey started out in vaudeville-style song-and-dance acts, for which her stage name was either "Ma" or "Madame" Rainey. She was one of the first entertainers to use the blues in her act, and as the genre caught on, she became popular. Between 1923 and 1928, she recorded 92 songs for Chicago's Paramount label.

Rainey was quite a character. A flashy dresser, she had a big heart but a volcanic temper. She was also bisexual, and rumors linked her to protege Bessie Smith, with whom she toured on the blues circuit.

While the plot of Wilson's play is completely fictional, the set looks like something the real-life Rainey would have visited. Set designer Michael McKeever's rundown studio is split into two areas clearly delineated by Dale Ripingill's fade-up and fade-out lighting design: a recording room and a band rehearsal room. The hard-backed chairs, scarred pianos, and bare floors peg the owners as people concerned more with the artists' money-making potential than their comfort. Like most black musicians at the time, Rainey was paid a flat fee for recording sessions but no royalties -- even though she composed more than a third of the songs.

Against the back wall is a sound control booth, occupied by two white people, who are obviously in control of the session, the black musicians, and the profits. Warning Rainey's manager Miss Irvin (Donna Wood) that he won't put up with any more of the singer's "Royal Highness Queen of the Blues bullshit," studio owner Sturdyvant (Ablan Roblin) reluctantly agrees to record four more songs, hoping they'll sell better than her last releases. Swing is overtaking the blues on the charts, and Sturdyvant and Irvin take advantage of Rainey's tardiness by changing the proposed song list and adding an upbeat introduction to the tune "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

Waiting on Rainey gives Wilson a chance to focus on the four musicians in her group. Switching from playful jive to painful tales of discrimination, their rehearsal-room banter is the backbone of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and the actors play the script's tonal changes like a tight four-piece band.

Early on, Cutler (Wayne Thompson), the guitarist, shares a joint and trades stories with Slow Drag (Roland Baker), the bass player. They talk of women, big dreams, and whether anyone they know has actually sold his or her soul to the devil.

Talk of the devil eventually leads to thoughts on how one gets ahead in a white man's world. Polishing his horn, Levee (Kevin Springs) thinks he has the answer: the intro to "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which he wrote and hopes will lead to future business with Sturdyvant. As ambitious as he is, Levee is also bitter; at one point, he spits out a harrowing tale of how white thugs destroyed his family when he was a child. His revenge: becoming a successful bandleader.

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.

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