What is the cost of creating art for Black Americans? Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s powerful and timely production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” explores themes of race, religion and exploitation of Black American artists in America.
Part of August Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle chronicling the Black-American experience, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” takes place in a 1920s Chicago recording studio, where the titular blues singer is set to record a new record of her music. Her accompanying quartet arrives before her, including the soberly educated Toledo and the ambitiously fireheaded Levee, a trumpeter and composer who dreams of having his own band to record his music. Stakes rise as the band debates religious and philosophical questions and personalities create friction, leading to a surprising yet inevitable finale. Originally produced on Broadway in 1984, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” received a Tony nomination for Best Play.
Candice Handy’s vision of the show is potent and relevant. While most of the show feels like a long philosophical debate between the four accompanying bandmates, the stakes are high and the two-and-a-half hour show flies. Tony Hardin’s three-layer set is large and beautiful, filling the room with wood floors, brick walls, and a realistic soundbooth. Sound designer and assistant technical director Robert Carlton Stimmel gracefully conquers some of the show’s challenges, specifically creating the sound environment of a recording studio, while costume designer Daryl Harris brings the characters to reality with some incredible and appropriately tailored costumes, specifically Levee, Dussie Mae, and Ma Rainey.
One of the unique (and very cool) aspects of the show is the soundtrack. Since most of the actors are not studio-level musicians (although several are skilled singers), this production features a score arranged by Yemi Oyediran and performed by some of Cincinnati’s great local jazz players. Some of my favorite moments were listening to trumpet player Mike Wade’s tasteful improvisation for the character Levee to “perform.”
The cast has some serious collective chops. Cristian Wiltshire brings devastating and empathetic nuance as Levee, possibly the most challenging role in the show. Wiltshire’s chemistry with “ranney” as Toledo is magnetic as the two debate everything under the sun, from religion to philosophy to the proper spelling of the word “music.” “ranney’s” monologues interspersed through the show are breathtaking to behold and worth the price of admission alone. Ken Early and Geoffrey Warren Barnes II as Cutler and Slow Drag are formidable foils to Wiltshire’s Levee, using equal parts humor and intimidation to keep the young trumpeter in line. Jeremy Dubin (Irvin) and Jim Hopkins (Sturdyvant) are an enjoyably antagonistic good-cop-bad-cop duo opposite Ma Rainey while Tyren Duncan (Sylvester) and Arrianna Chai (Dussie Mae) are well utilized as character actors for their supporting roles. The show wouldn’t work as a whole if not for an iconic Mother of the Blues and Torie Wiggins is larger than life with enough personality to blow the roof off as Madam Rainey. Her singing chops are more than adequate and her enthralling stage presence affirms her as the highest in the pecking order amongst the other characters.
CSC’s production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is beautiful, important, and some of the most effective storytelling I have ever experienced. “Ma Rainey” runs now through February 22nd. Tickets can be purchased here.
Nathan Top is a Cincinnati-based playwright and musician. Nathan works as a freelance trumpeter and pianist, performing in big bands, pit orchestras, and pop groups throughout the area.