REVIEW – Ma Rainey’sBlack Bottom
Alana Bridgewater is singing the blues
down at the Soulpepper Theatre
By Stephen Weir
Way back in time, singing the blues was a cultural statement for embattled Black Americans. The sad truth, at least, according to a 36-year old award winning play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. that just opened in Toronto, is that living the Blues doesn’t usually end well.
The play which tells a story of race, and exploitation of Black recording artists in Chicago in the 1920s is getting a much deserved revival at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre this month.
This American classic by August Wilson is a fictional account of the day the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (aka Gertrude Pridgett), recorded her 1927 hit record, Black Bottom, at a white-owned studio in the Windy City.
Ma Rainey is on a roll – and today she is going to cut a song she has written about dancing the Black Bottom, a popular African American dance in the 20s – a cross between tap dancing and doing the Jitterbug.
She has been on the road performing with Louis Armstrong and her 78-rpm blues records are selling by the trunkloads to African Americans in the Deep South. Well aware that Black recording artists are shamelessly exploited, Ma Rainey, performed by Scarborough’s Alana Bridgewater, is determined to push her considerable weight around at the white-owned studio to make sure it is done her way.
As the two and a half hour play opens. Ma Rainey has missed the call time for the recording session. Her five-member band arrives and heads to the basement to rehearse and wait for the star while record producer Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Rainey’s agent, Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin), pace the floor and fight about her tardiness.
There isn’t any harmony downstairs either. Ambitious trumpet player Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray) wants the band to play his new take on music — Jazz. Band leader and trombone player, Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre), who knows that Ma Rainey is the boss ,insists that they will play whatever way she tells them to. Toledo, a philosopher and piano player (Toronto recording artist Beau Dixon), and reefer smoking standup bass man Slow Drag (Jamaican Canadian Neville Edwards), stay cool and wait to see who wins the fight.
Ma Rainey finally arrives with her stuttering announcer nephew, Sylvester (Brampton’s Marcel Stewart) and her sexy lover Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith). The trio is followed by a white police officer looking for a handout to overlook Ma’s minor car accident.
After the bribes have been paid, the arguments settled and Ma’s contractual three bottles of cola arrive, the recording can begin.
Never mind the ads – this isn’t a musical. Only two songs are performed over two acts. The instruments and recording equipment are mere props for what the play is really about – artistic control of black culture, racism and the disappearance of old style Blues and the rise of Jazz.
The play opened last Thursday and is running almost completely sold out since then. Although the actors were having trouble with some of their lines when the Caribbean Camera attended, the acting is spot-on. When the lights go low, the reefers are lit and the music begins, you can’t help but feel all jazzy and ready to do the Black Bottom.
Alana Bridgewater’s Ma Rainy is putting the soul back into the Soulpepper Theatre until June 2nd at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in downtown Toronto’s Distillery District.