“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is running through October 18 at the Court Theatre, is part of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, but is set on the south side of Chicago in the 1920s. While the setting is different, the play still examines the circumstances around life for African-Americans at the time period the play is set in, like Wilson’s other plays.
And while Ma Rainey (Greta Oglesby) has her name in the title, the members of the band spend more time on stage than she does. The climatic parts of both acts rely on the performance of the actor portraying Levee, a headstrong horn player. James T. Alfred’s performance in this role is thoroughly captivating, making the character annoying at some parts, but ultimately a sad example of the powerlessness in the world of the music industry where white men called the shots and made money off of black entertainers, who at the end of the day, were viewed only by their color. Ma Rainey might be the big name and she may appear to call the shots, but during a problem between her and a white police officer, it is her white manager, Irvin (Stephen Spencer), who smooths things out.
And while the character of Levee might come off as being an obstinate person, he is truly talented and unfortunately lives in this world where there are certain things that are assigned to black people and how things are done with them and how their music should sound. It is the actions of Levee in both acts that create such intense and startling moments in the play, that at the performance I attended, you could only hear the actors breathing if you were close enough to the stage; they stop the heart, making one tense for what occurs after that.
This production features fine performances from all of the actors, each of whom has a large presence on stage, but when Oglesby is on stage, she steals the eye from everything else to focus on her, which is very suitable for Ma Rainey’s diva personality. The actors also mime the actions of playing instruments well enough to fool someone who has played an instrument for several years.
John Culbert’s set is so detailed in depicting the setting of the show that you can see the footprints that have been left by the wintertime sludge on the floor of the practice room. The set is storied, on a lower level is a practice room, a little higher up is the recording space and at the top is the entrance way. This works perfectly because when there is action occurring in two different spaces, you can focus both things simultaneously without being distracted and missing something important.
Parsons production comes together to create something so powerful that it is mesmerizing, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking all in the course of one moment. It creates a powerful moment on stage and in the audience, making Wilson’s words resonate through the space of the theater.