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Waiting for Ma

Boredom proves revealing in this August Wilson play

David Fonteno (left) and Maurice McRae (right) play and wait and wait some more.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/21/2010

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

At CenterStage through May 9

Ma Rainey is no more the main character in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom than Godot is the main character in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. In fact, Wilson could have titled his play Waiting for Ma. His leading figures--the blues musicians Levee, Toledo, Cutler, and Slow Drag--spend most of their time hanging around a 1927 Chicago recording studio until Ma shows up. And when she does show up, they hang around some more 'til she's actually ready to sing.

Like Beckett's Estragon and Vladimir, Wilson's African-American musicians deal with their boredom and anxiety by bickering, philosophizing, and telling stories. Beckett may have thought this hurry-up-and-wait limbo was a surrealist fable, but every musician who's attended a recording session knows this is journalistic realism.

As the four waiting musicians banter, they reveal the fault lines that define their lives--and not just the obvious divide between blacks and whites. There's the less obvious divide between the young trumpeter Levee (Maurice McRae), who embraces the new hot jazz, and the three older players who prefer the classic blues. The divide between the older pianist Toledo (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) who can read and his three bandmates who can't; between the guitarist Cutler (David Fonteno), the bandleader who accommodates the white boss, and the other three who complain bitterly about that boss behind his back; between the other three and bassist Slow Drag (Ernest Perry Jr.), who has no ambition beyond getting high and getting laid; and between the four musicians and Ma (E. Faye Butler), who can be every bit as dictatorial and overbearing as Sturdyvant (Laurence O'Dwyer), the white owner of Paramount Records.

That was the genius of the late Wilson; he never shied away from the racism in American life, but he never pretended that a person's life can be defined entirely by that racism--or by any other social issue. He recognized the rich complications of each human being and brought that complexity to the stage better than all but a few American playwrights. CenterStage first brought Ma Rainey's Black Bottom to Baltimore in 1990, and now, 20 years later, CenterStage artistic director Irene Lewis has revived the show in a flawed but immensely rewarding production.

This was only the second play Wilson wrote; it was the first to receive much attention at all, and it remains an anomaly in his 10-play cycle about African-American life in the 20th century--one play for each decade. Ma Rainey's is the only show not set in Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh, and it's the only one to feature a well known historical figure. It's the only one without the recurring character of the idiot savant truth-teller, the only one without a dose of magical realism, and the only one that leaves Wilson's socio-political commentary so undigested. It lacks the mature mastery of Wilson's greatest works: The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Fences, Gem of the Ocean, and, especially, Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

Nonetheless, Ma Rainey's has all the hallmarks that made the cycle so spellbinding: the storytelling that's alternately hilarious and horrifying, the integration of music and drama, the trauma of the displaced Southerner in the North, and the flash of violence that changes everything. Here was the beginning of one of the great achievements in American literature, and it shouldn't be missed.

The play turns on the 32-year-old trumpeter Levee, played by McRae in a tan fedora, pinstripe suit, and two-tone shoes. A generation younger than his fellow musicians, he brags about his flashy clothes, his modern music, and his fast approaching stardom. The fact that he's right doesn't make his arrogant swagger any less irritating. Toledo, played by the tall, thin Byrd with a salt-and-pepper beard, punches a hole in that bluster by proving that Levee can't read and revealing the insecurity that lies beneath such bravado.

As an intellectual who never seems to put his theories into action, Toledo has his own insecurities; he talks in a clipped monotone that's as self-protective as Levee's finger-snapping jive. By contrast, Cutler and Slow Drag talk in the thick-gravy drawl of old Southern men. When Ma finally bursts upon the scene, Butler, a Center Stage regular, gives her the brassy, peremptory voice of a clanging fire-alarm bell. As an aging race-music star with a young, restless lesbian lover, Ma has her own insecurities, and she compensates by attacking everyone before they can attack her. She knows she's needed only until they have her voice on tape, so she keeps delaying that moment.

Director Lewis decides to stage all this at the indolent tempo of the musicians' South rather than the faster pace of the record company's North. This has the advantage of reinforcing the players' rural Southern backgrounds and of allowing the humor to bloom more naturally. It has the disadvantage of sapping the tension; Levee should feel like a time bomb about to go off, but here he's just a troubled young man giving little warning of what's to come. So this is not an optimal staging, but it's a very good production of a great play.

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