Step right up and see the play that launched a juggernaut into the world and which is, was (and probably will be) unsurpassed and unparalleled in theater history. That record-breaking accomplishment is more familiarly known as “The Pittsburgh Cycle” and it’s an astounding ten plays, each taking place in one decade of the 20th century, written by the late August Wilson.
Wilson, of course, is the most famous playwright to have been born in Pittsburgh (although George S. Kaufman could also lay claim to that title) and an additional feature of the decalogy is that the plays are all set in Pittsburgh.
Except for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which, in 1984, was the first Wilson work to reach Broadway.
Ma Rainey takes place in Chicago, in 1927, and occurs during an afternoon session where legendary singer and “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, is recording a few sides for her harried manager and a slimy producer. Ma knows her only value to these white men is the money they can make from her … so before she sings she’s going to make sure everybody knows she’s the reason they’re there.
And it’s because of her repeated refusals to sing that her four-man band has nothing else to do but sit in the break room passing the time of day.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues through October 14 at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, Downtown. www.pghplaywrights.org
And that, really, is what the play’s about. Ma Rainey isn’t a story about the singer or her life, she’s a secondary character. The play is about the band and the bargains black men (specifically, but not exclusively, in 1927) are forced to make in an explicitly and implicitly hostile world.
These four men sit and speak the glorious language of August Wilson’s stage poetry. For most of the play’s first act what they’re discussing isn’t really even that important, it’s just this constant swirl of words, shimmering and sharp, and the way August Wilson composes the conversation and conducts it around the room. The men weave together an amazing tapestry of words and ideas unlike most any other playwright … with the possible exception of Tennessee Williams.
Ma Rainey, both the script and this Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production, is never better than in these scenes.
Director Mark Clayton Southers and assistant director Khalil Lee give an understated shape and flow to these passages, bringing forth seductive performances from the actors; Sam Lothard (Slow Drag,) Wali Jamal (Toledo,) Chuck Timbers, (Cutler) and Jonathan Berry playing the focal point of the show Levee. It’s extraordinary watching the exchange of energies and talent between them in exceptionally powerful performances.
Meanwhile, back in the Ma Rainey storyline, Vanessa German is every inch a star. (Both as Rainey and German.) She’s absolutely spot on with the singer’s imperious, regal distain, and she’s got a great set of pipes. Shakriah Stephens as Ma’s girlfriend and Malic Williams playing Ma’s nebbishy nephew both bring considerable depth to supporting characters.
But I gotta be honest and say that of “The Pittsburgh Cycle” Ma Rainey isn’t one of my favorites. (Those would probably be Fences, Jitney and Joe Turner.) Yeah, all that talk is gorgeous … but Wilson was not known for brevity and with the show coming it at three hours part of me was itching to do a little, as we say in the biz, judicious pruning.
At times, the production goes a little off-track – the Rainey scenes are hampered by a maddeningly lethargic pace and the band scenes hit and sustain an emotional climax far too early; what should be cold-as-ice menace is played as fiery fury.
But still, there those 10 plays stand on the landscape, sort of like a theatrical Stonehenge, and part of Pittsburgh Playwrights mission is producing Wilson’s work on a continual basis. It’s Ma Rainey’s turn and this cast, and company, rise to the challenge.