Last weekend, Cap & Bells performed August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — one of ten plays in Pittsburgh Cycle, a series which describes African-American experiences in the 20th century. As director Yasmin Ruvalcaba ’17 explains in the playbill, Ma Rainey explores issues that are still prevalent today, such as the development of identity, racism, sexuality, challenging gender roles, the exploitation of black artists and cultural appropriation. In the play’s moments of humor and seriousness, Cap & Bells’ exceptional performance reflects Wilson’s ability to emphasize history’s continuous influence on the human collective consciousness.
Unlike the other nine plays in Pittsburgh Cycle, Ma Rainey takes its audience outside of Pittsburgh to a Paramount Records studio in Chicago during the late 1920s. The stage was set in a small corner of the theatre with a ribbon microphone in the center, facing the audience. Chairs, stools and music stands scattered the stage while a piano faced away from the audience. There was a feeling of comfort and homeyness as if we were about to witness an intimate concert. The recording booth hung above the stage in the balcony, where the lead producer and assistant producer directed the recordings, underscoring the play’s themes of power and self-delusion.
The play begins with the sound of one of Ma Rainey’s songs. Irvin (Eli Cytrynbaum ’20), the assistant producer, steps into the scene, adjusting a music stand and testing the microphone to prepare for Rainey’s recording session. Lead producer Sturdyvant (Molly Murphy ’19) asks Irvin where Rainey is. She is nowhere to be found, and Sturdyvant starts losing his patience.
The band arrives and gets ready to rehearse the songs until Rainey arrives. These members include a young ambitious trumpet player, Levee (Jae’Quan Barr ’19), who is determined to bring a more contemporary, jazzier style to Rainey’s music; the trombonist Cutler (Zeke King Phillips ’18), who prefers playing the songs just as they are; the pianist Toledo (Philemon Abel ’19), whose self-education and ability to read have made him become the wise old philosopher of the band; and finally Slow Drag (Terah Ehigiator ’18), who struggles to tune his bass and is simply cool with smoking reefer from Cutler.
The band rehearses “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but before they begin, Levee interjects and tells his bandmates that they must play his arrangement of the song. Cutler refuses, knowing that Rainey only records songs her way — the old way. However, when Irvin arrives, he tells the musicians to play Levee’s arrangement, encouraging Levee’s conceited attitude and hopes of launching into stardom.
Ma Rainey (Jazmin Bramble ’20) finally arrives in the middle of play, angry about a fender-bender that has damaged her car. She arrives with her girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Morgan Spellman ’18), and nephew, Sylvester (Chanel Palmer ’19), as well as a policeman (Tom Robertshaw ’19), who has charged Rainey with assault and battery for having an altercation with an unaccommodating taxi driver. With Rainey powerless against these assault charges, Irvin dismisses the conflict by sliding some cash to the police officer. Once the officer leaves, however, Rainey immediately demands Irvin to fix and pay for her car’s damages by that afternoon, in addition to raising the temperature of the studio and buying her a bottle of Coca-Cola.
As the recording session gets started, Rainey decides to not use Levee’s rendition of her song. She sticks to her version of playing jazz and the blues, and disregards Levee who refers to it as “old jug-band music.” Rainey is acting impossible, but she suggests she has her reasons to Cutler, explaining, “As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.”
In this scene, Wilson does not necessarily dramatize the challenges black artists face in an industry controlled by whites. Rather, he uses it to carefully examine the appropriation of black art. Rainey further remarks, “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”
Rainey implements another change to her song — instead of beginning with a trumpet introduction, Sylvester will provide a voice intro despite his stutter. The song that follows this introduction is incredible, highlighting Bramble’s unique and exceptional vocal abilities as she belts out “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” To their dismay, however, Sylvester’s smooth intro and Rainey’s perfect singing were not recorded, leading Irvin to falsely blame Levee for unplugging the cable. Rainey becomes enraged and fires Levee from the band.
In his last vie for stardom, Levee asks Sturdyvant if his compositions were able to be recorded. The producer decides that they were “not the tunes that we were looking for,” crushing Levee’s dreams. Caught up in his anger and resentment, Levee fatally stabs Toledo in the end, ultimately ruining all of Levee’s prospects.
One cannot diminish the contemporary relevance of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The racism experienced by the characters almost a whole century ago is the same as the racism affecting people of color today. Just like all of Wilson’s plays, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom leaves its audience with a stimulated mind, finding humanity in an honest portrayal of society.
The play ‘Ma Rainey’ excels at its ability to emphasize history’s continuous influence on the human collective consciousness. Photo courtesy of Randall Flippinger.