‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ at NKU Strikes a Dissonant Chord
Posted On June 23, 2017
Review by Spenser Smith of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: NKU
Set in a recording studio in the 1920’s over the course of an afternoon, a group of musicians and the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey record several songs. Much of the play takes the form of discussions and arguments among the four musicians, each of whom brings his own perspective to questions of prejudice and the problems facing African Americans in society.
Toledo (Carlos Matthews) is the piano-playing moderator of the evenings debates. He is level-headed, but definitely has something to say. Slow Drag (Kaleb King) is the aptly-named bass player that serves up a few zingers but is mostly along for the ride. Levee (Geoffrey Hill) is the hot-headed trumpet player that is confident his arrangements will make him the next name in the music industry. Troublesome for me, his antics are more center stage (literally) than Ma and her name is in the title. Cutler (Landon Horton) is the trombone player that places his trust in God. It was definitely a pleasant surprise to see Landon on a local stage again. Irvin (Ben Cohen), Ma’s manager, knows “how to handle her” and he does a fine job delivering laughs throughout the show.
Ma Rainey (Brittany Hayes) shows up over an hour late to the recording and most fittingly, almost an hour into the show. We see her throughout the night in short, diva spurts and then go back to the conversations with the band members. I would have liked to see more of Ma, both literally and figuratively. Ma thinks she’s a star and Sturdyvant (James Dawson), the record producer, knows she is. I think those antics could have been better served if we had seen more vocal power from all involved. There is a trap in which actors can fall in the Stauss Theatre. A smaller space does not mean smaller voices. I had issues with diction and volume throughout the night. I also mean to say that this vocal variety would add to the intensity of the physically violent moments in the show. The same can be said for the songs. When the boys are practicing and when we (finally) get to recording, the music is too soft. It makes watching the actors mime playing their instruments much more difficult to believe.
Overall the show is filled with fine performances, directed by Daryl Harris. The unique set, by Kenton Brett, is something I haven’t seen in that space before but absolutely appropriate. I really loved the practical use of the space. Costumes, by Ronnie Chamberlain, are appropriate for the time period and it was a pleasure to see all those snazzy shoes! Fitting, since that item takes a main focus towards the end of the play.
As a native of the city and a member of three generations of Cleveland sports teams, I was disappointed to miss Game 2 of the World Series. Considering the outcome, it’s probably best I went to the theatre and I’m glad I did. Ma Rainey is enjoyable and thought-provoking. It made me really listen and I think that would do a lot of us serious good in these troubled times.
Ma Rainey continues at the Stauss Theatre on the campus of Northern Kentucky University through October 30.