August Wilson is one of America's most renowned playwrights, an artist who most famously documented 100 years of African American culture in his 10-play "Pittsburgh Cycle." Portland audiences have had the opportunity to see bits of the cycle in recent years: Fences at Portland Center Stage and Radio Golf at Portland Playhouse, two plays which examine the 1950s and 1990s, respectively. With Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Portland Playhouse jumps even further back in time for a look at the black experience in the 1920s, through the lens of a single tumultuous recording session.
As imagined here, "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey is a notoriously controlling singer prone to outrageous demands: She insists that her stuttering nephew do the spoken-word intro to a song, and refuses to sing so much as a note until she's got a Coca-Cola in her hand.
Rainey's outsized personality is captured aggressively by Marilyn Keller, but for much of the play she's nowhere to be found—the diva is late, as usual, and the band and management mill about the studio in uneasy anticipation. The first act focuses largely on the internal dynamics of the band, as they squabble over which arrangement to play and which direction their music should be taking—clear conflicts emerge, between young Levee (Victor Mack), who derisively calls the group a "jug band" and longs to pursue his own jazzier impulses, and older, steadier musicians Toledo (Wrick Jones) and Cuttler (Wendell Wright). The white producer and band manager, meanwhile, are clearly uncomfortable with Rainey's lateness and demands, but they're reluctant to alienate their best-selling artist. Throw in some competition over the girl Ma Rainey has her eye on—not to mention the racial conditions of the time—and you've got a volatile situation that can't help but explode.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a classic work, artfully produced by Portland Playhouse. It's museum-piece theater, a look at the racial dynamics of the 1920s as refracted through 1982, when Wilson wrote the play. There are clear conclusions to be drawn from the show, and as a window into mid-century African American anger, it's most successful: When violence ultimately erupts out of the white producers' exploitation of the band, it seems an inevitable result of the slow accretion of humiliation over the course of the recording session, an easy parallel to a society that granted its black citizens only partial autonomy.