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The Music, Man

Riveting Central Performance Anchors This Portrait of The Artist as a Young Black Man

Tom Lauer
Jerome Banks-Bey Blows Hot For Natalie Tucker.

By R. Darryl Foxworth | Posted 9/24/2008

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

By August Wilson

At the Vagabond Players through Sept. 28

The African-American experience has always been difficult to grasp; even harder is depicting this experience such that it accurately portrays its varied and heterogeneous nature. To make matters even more difficult, how does the artist convey this experience without bludgeoning the audience atop the head: How do you navigate the narrow line of subtlety?

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is one of the more celebrated attempts at navigating this very line, and August Wilson, its deceased and celebrated playwright, understood that it was through specificity that the black narrative could most accurately be delivered. By concentrating his cycle of plays on the working-class black Americans of decades past, Wilson sublimely places a light on the experience that so many artists--both black and white--have failed to portray expertly.

Black Bottom, the only one of Wilson's 10-play cycle not to take place in Pittsburgh, focuses on race relations, religion, economic exploitation, and art--pillars all of the African-American experience. Madame "Ma" Rainey (Valerie Lewis), the noted black blues performer, arrives in Chicago in 1927 to cut a new record. Her band consists of the talented, albeit hot-headed Levee (Jerome Banks Bey); the even-keeled bandleader, Cutler (Maurice X Daniel); the comical bassist Slow Drag (Bruce Allen Dawson); and Toledo (Archie D. Williams, Jr.), the knowledgeable pianist whose surprising commentary on African-American life often annoys and irritates his bandmates.

Ma is late to the session and ever-demanding when she arrives, drawing the ire of Irvin (William Amland), her white manager, and Sturdyvant (Roger MacDonald), the white producer and proprietor of the recording studio. It doesn't affect Ma Rainey, the reigning "Mother of the Blues," who appears to embody the well-caricatured black diva of past and present. Ma, despite being the titular character, takes a backseat in this tale, as the central plot focuses on the interactions between the musicians within her band.

Levee is likely one of the more antagonistic leading men of modern American letters; he is a sympathetic character of intelligence and self-confidence, but also full of rage--mercurial at best. And he dominates the play; after all, this is the role that helped bring Charles Dutton into prominence, and Jerome Banks Bey steps into lofty shoes and performs aptly. His Levee is engaging and dissuasive, accommodating to the white man and also defiant. He is a multilayered character requiring an actor of incredible range to portray him, and Banks Bey is just that.

The rest of the play is adorned by stock and bit characters, but this isn't the fault of the actors, but a device employed by the play itself. Cutler and Toledo serve as Levee's adversaries, while Slow Drag is comic relief. Cutler, the senior member of Ma Rainey's entourage, is unimpressed by Levee's self-perceived "style," and ardently encourages him to recognize his place in the band, a hierarchy that displeases the ambitious and oft hot-tempered musician. Cutler seems content serving under Ma Rainey and Irvin, in contrast to Levee, who means to strike out on his own by manipulating the white men who subjugate him. Levee's refusal to accept life as a sideman angers many who surround him, particularly Cutler and Ma Rainey, who believe that a man--a black man at that--ought to know his place.

Toledo, sagacious and opinionated, lectures his bandmates on what he perceives as the many shortcomings that have adversely affected African-American people. Well-read and intelligent, his messages are routinely misunderstood and lost on his peers and colleagues. Williams, though, fails to animate Toledo properly, particularly in contrast to Banks Bey's Levee, whose stage presence is dynamic and magnetic. Williams' Toledo is subtle to a fault; he might be forgettable if not for the character's centrality to the plot.

The remaining members of the cast turn in solid, able performances, the best of the group being Octavius Johnson, who portrays Ma's stuttering, bumbling nephew Sylvester with great skill. It's surprising to read that this is Johnson's first stage production, as his talents are in full display despite a limited role. Valerie Lewis captures Ma Rainey wonderfully, displaying equal levels of self-assuredness and stubbornness. Her lover, the star-struck Dussie Mae (Natalie Tucker), struts across stage, projecting delicate sexuality with her svelte frame.

But Banks Bey is the true star here. His Levee embodies the black experience best. He is unable to be defined by those looking from without, and yet he struggles to forge an identity of his own: complicated and defying definition.

Editor's Note 9/26/2008: Due to a misprint in the play's program and an understudy in the cast, two performers were misidentified in this review. Toledo was played by understudy Les Lemar, and Dussie Maes was played by Cheveť Crafton.

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