Tuesday, April 17, 2012


‘Black Bottom’ Shakes Up Grandel Theatre
by Marcus “Ma’at” Atkins

St Louis Black Rep’s Producing Director and Founder Ron Himes has prided himself in print that his company is the second one in the country to produce all of the late playwright August Wilson’s ten-play cycle. He also boasted that his company plans to “recycle” the plays with his first one, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”(that Himes co-stars ) that is currently staged at The Grandel Theatre. 

Some of the cast of Black Rep's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" FROM LEFT: Antonio Fargas, jaki terry and Ron Conner (photo courtesy of Black Rep)

Directed by Ed Smith and set in the gangster era of the “Roaring 20s,” (Wilson’s “first decade” play),  “ Black Bottom”, whose title comes from Rainey's a classic blues  tune, centers around the “jive talkin” from blues singer Ma Rainey’s “sidemen” during their rehearsal at a Chicago recording studio as they wait for her to arrive and record  some of her classic “sides.”

The  actors who play the four colorful sidemen all give solid performances. They are veteran actor Antonio Fargas as Cutler,  Erik Kilpatrick as Slow Drag  and standouts Himes as the militant Toldeo and Ron Conner as hothead, Levee (whose soliloquy performance of his family’s encounter with Ku Klux Klansmen is worthy of Kline Award consideration) . Their chemistry is believable and, even with the character’s racy dialogue peppered with the N-WORD, the characters are likable and one can feel empathy of their hustle.

What also adds realism to this version of “Black Bottom’s’ is the spectacular two story set of a 1920s recording studio (designed by Tim Case) with vintage microphones, tall brown walls and the picture tube glass window leading toward the upper tier studio.

As far as the main character, Ma Rainey, ironically enough,  although the play is named 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom', when the character finally arrives (played by jaki terry) close to the end of Act One,  she is seen as an afterthought in the mix. Plus Terry is unfortunately not as strong portraying a ballsy female lovin' diva. She didnt have enough "sista grit" to make the character memorable (Where was Denise Thimes or  Sandra Reaves Phillips when this was cast?) . What comes across with Terry's character portrayal  is  someone coming late to a studio and placing her hand on her hip for respect. The supporting cast members,  stuttering Sylvester (played by Maurice Demus) and Rainey’s female lover Dussie Mae (played by Evann Jones)who travels along with Ma Rainey,  even upstages Terry with their specific quirks and personalities.

In addition, the white characters in the play, Irvin (played by Chad Morris) and Sturdyvant (played by Tom Wethington)  who portrayed the recording engineers and “money men”  were good as characters that symbolizes the “overseers” of black musicians and their created music (One of the sidemen even quips that  the white men tolerates Rainey’s lateness and diva attitude because they know they can make money off of her).

With Wilson’s plays, the theme  is always about how black people have been influenced by  their surroundings or what elements influence them. In “Black Bottom” its beyond the music being performed from the band members, but how they survive in a white-based world (the lynch pen 1920s)  and communicate their frustrations by putting each other in check of their limitations.

And, The Black Rep’s version of “Black Bottom” is “ very solid” with this theory, on the “black hand side.”

The Black Rep presents
August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Runs Thru May 13
Ticket info, go to www.blackrep.org or 314.534.3810

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