Getting to the Bottom of the Blues

The Alley opens the new year on the Large Stage January 12 with August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. The Alley production will feature Theresa Merritt as legendary blues singer Madame "Ma" Rainey, reprising the Broadway role for which she received a nomination for a Tony Award. The production will be directed by Claude Purdy, who has previously directed Wilson's Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone for the Alley.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the "black bottom" was a popular dance of the time) and portrays the interactions among the black musicians and white producers as they prepare to cut a record by Ma Rainey and her band. The 1984 play was Wilson's first; since then, in less than a decade, he has become one of America's most important playwrights, with a body of work both profound and popular. Two of his plays have won the Pulitzer Prize: Fences (1987) and Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1990). His most recent play is Two Trains Running. Each play is set in a different decade; each chronicles a different period of the African-American experience in the 20th century.

During rehearsals for Ma Rainey, Merritt and Purdy spoke to the Press about the play and their sense of Wilson's work. Merritt, whose theater, film and television credits include Carmen Jones, The Wiz, Division Street, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, All That Jazz and The Goodbye Girl, is delighted to be returning to the role of Ma Rainey: "I just think Ma is a magnificent person, and I'm so thrilled to play her -- there's so many facets of this person." Rainey was known as the "Mother of the Blues" because she was among the first singers to take the blues form from its folk-country roots to the stage. Merritt describes Rainey as both a strong performer and "hard businesswoman," sharp enough to be a financial success in a very tough business. "She's hard because of her life. She knew how to deal with people both as businessperson and as a musician, on her own level. I work very hard to make [clear] those characteristics."

Merritt initiated the role of Ma Rainey in the original New Haven production, although she didn't at first think she would do it. Her early training was as a classical singer -- "Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson were my models," she says -- so she didn't really think of herself as a blues singer. "But in the theater," she says, "you've got to be ready to do a lot of things." The play is not, in any case, a musical; much of the script is devoted to a running argument over how to record the title song. Merritt says she tries only to approximate Ma Rainey's vocal style as reflected in her classic blues recordings from the '20s: "I try to create her style, in a way. I'm not quite so growl-y or tinny as she is. My voice is more mellow."

Merritt says that coming back to this music reminded her of her childhood in Philadelphia, where blues records were in the house. "But the kids weren't supposed to listen. [Blues records] were pushed aside when we were around. We weren't the staunchest religious family, but religious enough for blues records to be considered a sin. So you listened to them when the adults weren't around."

Now, having played the role often enough, on Broadway and elsewhere, to be identified with it, Merritt is proud to claim the connection to August Wilson's work. "I'm so glad that Mr. Wilson wrote this play, and that I'm a part of it.... I'll play it as long as someone asks me to."

For director Purdy, the key to Ma Rainey is in the conflict between generations and styles of music, as exemplified in the arguments between Ma and her young trumpet player, Levee, over the arrangements of her song: Should they do it as a classic twelve-bar blues or as an up-tempo, syncopated jazz number with instrumental flourishes. "Inherent in the story is the period clash, when the classic blues comes into conflict with contemporary jazz. That's a great metaphor for the entire conflict, at the center of the story -- because Ma's classic blues, and her whole conflict with Levee and his new music, is sort of centered inside each character. At the same time it's an actual historical fact, the conflict between those two [styles]."

Because in the play Rainey's white producers are trying to get the singer to modernize her work, they are momentarily in alliance with Levee against the singer. The conflict sets up a literal power structure, with the producers at the top, the band members at the bottom, and Ma in the middle. Says Purdy: "The means of production is owned by the [white producers]. We tried to set that up in the architecture of the set. We have those who own the building at the top level, and then you have Ma, with a certain amount of control, and then the guys in the band room down in the basement."

For Purdy, what is particularly exciting about Wilson's work is his success at building major historical themes into the vivid narratives of his scripts. In this play, the debate over song styles eventually generates explosive arguments about the meaning of life, especially black life, in America. "The major themes sort of happen in the character of Levee. Is it a just country, is it a just God? Those very large questions are handled in the band room, almost as if, in a very barber-shop way, almost as if it's the dialogues of Plato. Who are we, what is our identity, what's gotten us this far? All of these things are handled quite well among the band members."

For Purdy, Wilson has become an epic poet of the American experience, using the black American oral history and especially popular music to discover and recount the whole culture of a people. "The blues is very similar to the book. The stories are in the music, because you're an oral people. Your culture was embodied in it.... Wilson has done an extraordinary thing in treating the music as the anthropology of a culture. Not just a style of music, but a whole container of an entire culture.

"What he set out to do was to define the landscape of his culture and to try to deal each decade with the most important ideas that were in the culture.... [I see August Wilson as] part anthropologist, part historian, part poet. I keep comparing him to Homer -- in his determination to get down that whole culture, in some theatrical form.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >