During rehearsals for August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Mark Clayton Southers wasn’t shy about revealing his reasons for directing the show.
“I told them I was being very selfish, that I really shouldn’t be directing this play because of my health issues [Southers has had issues with knee replacement surgery since February], but I told them I needed to direct this. I needed something to keep me from slipping deep into depression,” says the founder and producing artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. “There are a lot of capable directors in the city, but I needed to be involved on this level.”
The production, which runs from Sept. 14 to Oct. 1, is part of the August Wilson Center’s Highmark Blues and Heritage Festival, which celebrates the musical genre and the musicians who revolutionized it — one of those musicians being Ma Rainey, one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers who is called the “mother of blues.”
The 1982 play is the first in Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle and set in Chicago — the only play not in the Steel City. It revolves around an imaginary recording session with the 1920s singer, her producers and her band.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. 8 p.m Sept. 14 through Oct.. (also 2 p.m. on Saturdays, 3 p.m. on Sundays.) 1. $35. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company. 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. www.pghplaywrights.org
Usually, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company saves an August Wilson play for its season finale. But after the August Wilson Center approached him about performing the work, Southers thought a change in lineup felt right.
“The very first play we did when we started 15 years ago was ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’ We haven’t done it in 15 years, so it makes a lot of sense,” he says.
According to Southers, the cast ranges in performance skills of all levels, from newer faces who are performing in an August Wilson work for the first time to seasoned members of the community.
One of those seasoned members is Vanessa German, a local performance artist who has been involved with Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company both on and off stage: She’s coordinated the costumes for past productions and played Bernice in its first production of “The Piano Lesson.” And, before that, her mother helped provide tapestries and curtains for shows.
“I love working with Pittsburgh Playwrights,” she says. “It’s really special to be in that community, because it’s exactly sort of like the layers of magic that August worked in.”
This is not German’s first time playing the titular role: she’s done it in the past for August Wilson’s birthday at the August Wilson Center.
But, this time around, she’s gained deeper appreciation for the character after her own personal and artistic growth.
“Ma Rainey was a boss in the 1920s. She ran her career in a time when people didn’t want to let her walk into the front door of the theater. At that time, I was too young to imagine the places a human being — a black woman — has to go to inside of themselves to overcome any fear or trepidation to be themselves,” she says. “She died in the 30s and people are still talking about her. They’re still singing her songs.”
Proceeds from the matinee performance on Sept. 15 will benefit German’s Art House, a community creative space in Homewood. German, however, is more focused on what she’ll be able to do with the money from the ticket sales than the almost sold-out show.
“I’m thinking, ‘This is what I can order online.’ I can order a whole a whole bunch of masks that the kids love to paint. I can order one of those huge slats of pumpkins and make a little pumpkin patch out in the backyard and give the kids a little-fall festival,” she says. “I’m thinking about renting a petting zoo for a day and doing a fall festival and letting the kids plan a little festival for Homewood.”
Southers doesn’t intend to make a statement with the play. He just wants to transport the audience to another time and put on a professional-level show.
“We want people to walk out and say things we’ve heard in the past,” Southers says. ‘This was better than Broadway’ or, ‘I had the best time of my life,’ or ‘this was a great experience.’”
Amanda Reed is a Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org