Fine cast, fine play

At the Philadelphia Theatre Co August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom reminds you of O’Neill in its psychological truths and Lorraine Hansberry in its theatrical courage. Less a play about the legendary blues pioneer Ma Rainey and more about the legacies of racism and its effects.

It is 1925 in a Chicago recording studio where blue legend Ma Rainey is taking a break from her successful tour to her legions of black fans in the south to churn out records for her white owned exploitive manager and record company. Sitting in for the track of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is Levee, a young, talented jazz trumpeter and three other veteran musicians.

The modest rehearsal room for the musicians turns into an arena of competition and camaraderie. Levee, a reluctant sideman trying to break out of what he call ’jug’ band music by writing hot jazz arrangements, won’t fall in line with the veterans who just want to play the gig and get paid.

Wilson’s dialogue cycles are full of period jargon and stories of the lives of these men coping in a racist America, we get to know them intimately. Pitch perfect performances from Earnest Perry, Jr. as the brassy bassist Slow Drag, who tries to smooth rivalries over and Ro Boddie, Rainey’s nephew who ‘Ma springs on the band to do the spoken intro to her song. But it is Thomas Jefferson Bryd’s touching, salty Toledo, who can’t help philosophizing and Maurice McRae’s volcanic Levee who go the bitter heart of Wilson’s drama.

Levee full of brio as a defense from the raw courage he endured as he exposes the violent truths of his life that have brought him to the breaking point of success or failure. Wilson writes it as high-wire dramatic part and McRae delivers a passionate, gutsy performance.

In contrast, Ma Rainey is played with blistering flair by E Faye Butler. The character is almost comic relief, with Butler as the consummate blues diva, who knows the score and is going to reign, so get out of her way.