Sing, Muse, the Wrath of Ma Rainey

More than just a blue period, Ma Rainey sings -- and boasts and celebrates and laments -- the tale of a culture

But all of this meditation is embodied in a narrative about a particular afternoon on a particular day in 1927, in the dead of a Chicago winter, when the band members are cold and bored, Ma is (righteously) late and irascible, the producers are irritated and hypocritical, and the inevitable subplots of ambition, vanity, desire and jealousy are proceeding everywhere in the margins. Wilson coyly observes the Aristotelian unities requisite of tragedy, so it's a thick stew for a single afternoon, to use the metaphor Toledo vainly tries to apply to American history before his fellows laugh him out of it -- and before tragedy, indeed, assumes the stage. The blues is a celebratory music -- "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is a farcical, danceable song about music and sex -- but its tunes carry the darkness of their origins, and it does not deny them. Tragedy, of course, was a choral music, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is also Levee Green's tragedy, on which the blues fall down like hail.

Headliner Theresa Merritt earns her accolades -- she's formidable as actress and singer -- but she's at the center of an ensemble notable for its fluid interdependence. Russell Andrews is an explosive Levee, Alex Allen Morris is an endearingly didactic Toledo, and these are matched by Brimm's ever-patient Cutler and Jacquet's sardonic Slow Drag. In supporting roles, Renee Elise Goldsberry is a sultry and conniving Dussie Mae, and Michael Ballard is suitably ingenuous in the thankless role of stuttering Sylvester. James Black and Charles Krohn capably portray the calculating manager and dishonest producer, with a dignity rather larger than their historically representative roles.

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