Before “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” premiered on Broadway in 1984, August Wilson was an obscure author with one seldom-seen play to his name (“Jitney”). Within six months, he had been recognized as the man who might be – and proved to be – the most important African-American playwright in history.
CPCC Theatre has done Wilson proud over the years. If memory serves, the production of “Rainey” that opened Friday night in Pease Auditorium is the fourth of his plays at the college, after “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
“Rainey” reunites the “Turner” team of director Corlis Hayes and actors Jonavan Adams, Willie Stratford Jr. and Tom Scott. That’s partly why the actors feel so comfortable together, steering us through Wilson’s naturalistic dialogue toward an inevitable but no less harrowing conclusion.
Like Eugene O’Neill, Wilson loves conversations that double back on each other, take odd tangents, get interrupted – sometimes by sense, sometimes by nonsense – and often repeat themselves, as speeches by garrulous or insecure people do.
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Adams, who plays seething trumpeter Levee with huge merriment and huge wrath, carries the main weight of the drama. Various characters in the play experience or recount moments in which white people exploit or demean them, but Levee’s pain runs deeper.
Music is both his potential salvation and a demon that rides him; he defines himself only as a creative trumpeter (or briefly as a lover), so he resents the old-fashioned approach on which Ma Rainey insists. The rest of her band consists of philosophic Toledo (Gagan Hunter), amiable Slow Drag (Stratford) and unquestioning Cutler (Tyrone Jefferson), who introduces each song with the motto “One, two, you know what to do.” (Trombonist Jefferson, the show’s music director, is the only one of the band members who plays all his numbers.)
Rainey really existed and was near the end of her vocal peak in 1927, when the show is set. Wilson’s version of her, performed with ferocity and fine singing by Shar Marlin, rages against both whites and blacks most of the time; her often arbitrary exercise of limited power gives her leverage in a white world where her black cohorts have none, and she can be calm and gentle only with her shy, stuttering nephew (Danius Jones, noteworthy in this small role). The title of the play refers to both a hit song and the part of her anatomy she wants perceived enemies to kiss.
Wilson often writes about the ways desperate characters carve out small pieces of turf – sometimes emotional, sometimes physical – and cling to them in neighborhoods, jobs and personal relationships.
He develops that theme here, in a recording studio where there’s not enough turf to go safely around. Jennifer O’Kelly’s three-part set depicts the anteroom, recording studio and rehearsal hall. It works well, but its construction means the audience at stage right may have trouble hearing some dialogue at stage left.
And if that dialogue remains less compact or focused than in “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson” or less imaginative than in “Joe Turner,” it represents an engaging writer in his 30s still discovering his own powers – a writer every American needs to know.