A cold day in Chicago
By Mark Voger, author, “Monster Mash: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America 1957-1972″
A play set in the 1920s has unforeseen, and unwelcome, resonance during a time when preserving white privilege is a subtextual issue of the 2016 presidential campaign, and the killing of unarmed black men is a national epidemic.
With Two River Theater’s production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the Red Bank, New Jersey, venue is now four shows into its pledge to put on all of August Wilson’s “century cycle” of 10 plays, set in 10 decades from the 1910s through the 1990s. (The production kicked off Sept. 10 and closes Oct. 9; I saw the Sept. 24 matinee.)
This engrossing production directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, with a fiery performance by Brandon J. Dirden, will have you laughing, crying, rocking to the blues, and wondering: Are you there, God?
Setup: On a cold day in Chicago in 1927, personnel and equipment are being assembled for a recording session. Singer Ma Rainey (Arnetia Walker), the “mother of the blues,” is on her way — hopefully — to record songs with a jazz quartet. Her manager, Irvin (Michael Cumpsty), and producer Sturdyvant (Peter Van Wagner) are on edge. Ma is a diva, and an unpredictable one. Sturdyvant is holding Irvin responsible for keeping Ma under control. “I’ll handle it,” Irvin says — a phrase he will repeat more than once.
The quartet shows up in high spirits and natty duds: pianist Toledo (Brian D. Coats), upright bassist Slow Drag (Harvy Blanks), trombonist Cutler (James A. Williams) and trumpeter Levee (Dirden). Toledo is an amateur philosopher who lives in his world of books; Slow Drag and Cutler are wizened cutups; Levee is a young dandy who is utterly convinced that his talent and ambition will result in a solo band and a recording contract.
Today, Levee is paying his dues, playing with what he derisively calls a “jug band.” Levee wants to swing. You can tell this from his brand-spankin’-new shoes — a pair of gleaming Florsheims in tan and green. The other three musicians, who are older than Levee, chide the young’un for spending what little he has on fancy shoes.
Ma Rainey finally shows up, but not without drama. She and her entourage — on-the-downlow galpal Dussie Mae (Chanté Adams) and stuttering nephew Sylvester (Marcel Spears) — have been in some sort of car accident, and they are accompanied by a blustery Irish cop (Bob Mackasek) who aims to bring charges. Irvin greases the officer’s palm with a wad of bills, sending him off with a smile — and clearing Ma to get on with the recording session.
But drama still manages to pile up. Ma insists her nephew do the spoken-word intro to a song, despite his considerable speech impediment. There is argument over which arrangement of the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” the band should play. (Irvin says to go with Levee’s danceable updated version; Ma overrules him in favor of the traditional arrangement.)
Ma is demanding — she won’t sing a note until she gets her Coca Cola — but later confides that she is all too aware that “once they have my voice in the box,” she has sacrificed her bargaining position.
When Levee acts all “Uncle Tom”-y in the presence of “Mistah Sturdyvant” — he wants that recording contract — the other musicians ridicule him. This triggers something deep and dark within Levee. In a hushed tone, he speaks of a childhood incident that left him with scars both physical and emotional. Levee opens his shirt and shows the musicians the ugly proof. (To avoid spoilers, I won’t elaborate.)
Later, Cutler physically attacks Levee for denigrating his God. Alas, that won’t be the only violence to visit this day.
We are in good hands with this cast. Everyone — every last cast member — is excellent. Dirden is at his best. I could watch and listen to Coats, Blanks and Williams all day. In Toledo, Coats has created a believable, tangible character you could meet walking down the street or on the subway. And it’s hard not to keep an eye on lovely, sexy — and funny — Adams.
Having thoroughly enjoyed Two River’s previous productions of Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” and “Seven Guitars” — I missed “Jitney,” dammit — I made it my mission to see “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” I urge you to do the same.
AUGUST WILSON’S ‘MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM’
Remaining shows: Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 2, 5-9
Where: Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank
How much: $20-$65
Contact: 732-345-1400 or tworivertheater.org