It’s not too late to see one of the BEST shows now onstage in Boston– the Huntington Theatre Company’s explosive, soul-searing production of Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist August Wilson’s MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. With this play, the Huntington completes its presentation of all ten of Wilson’s epic cycle of plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, which explore the evolving experience of African-Americans trying to find the “high ground” (Wilson’s words) in their struggle to affirm their self worth in America.
Through the character of Ma Rainey, Wilson explodes the dark underside of the blues, the wail and anger, the moan and cry. The play starts out simply enough–it’s 1927 Chicago, and two white men– one a manager, one a recording studio owner (Will Lebow and Thomas Derrah)– wait at the studio for the arrival of the diva Ma Rainey and her band who show up to make a record. She knows these white men will take as much as they can–try to steal her song–and she will make them dance to her demands before she gives it up. Yvette Freeman is superb as the knowing, feisty and proud legendary blues singer.
The play begins on slow simmer– the band arriving first, warming up. The band is a knockout ensemble of actors within this already impressive larger ensemble. The players wrestle with the gig and each other; little by little their personal stories emerge, in between the banter and the music, anecdotes of cruelty and humiliation– bigotry served up as standard fare for a black man in the first half of the 20th century.
By the time Ma arrives, we’re ready for her toughness, her relentless demands– threatening to walk out if she doesn’t get her three cokes, insisting on her stuttering nephew’s introductory recitation at the beginning of the recording–and we begin to understand: there’s a method to her madness.
As Ma rants and sings, and the boys in the band play and argue, the tension and hostility build, until one too many awful stories are told and we see that the cruelty in that story has wounded a man so deep he can never recover. His anger turns in — then out, in a rage so shattering, it split the air and my heart. Jason Bowen as Levee delivers us into the agony of his character’s soul and it’s almost unbearable.
And suddenly Ma Rainey’s defiance is sanctified; holding her ground, she sings the blues, knowing these white men up in the booth “don’t understand about the blues…they hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.” Rainey knows they will never have her soul; they will have to settle for whatever they can record on vinyl.
DO NOT MISS: MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM at the Huntington Theatre Company through April 8!