Sing, Muse, the Wrath of Ma Rainey

Playwright August Wilson credits the blues with giving him a voice and a history. As a young poet in search of a subject and a style, he happened upon the music of Bessie Smith and discovered a whole culture and tradition -- his own. When he later came to write his first plays he returned to that inspiration, although not directly to Bessie Smith but to her less-remembered contemporary and rival, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, billed in the '20s as "The Mother of the Blues."

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the first-produced of Wilson's now distinguished body of work, is his homage to Ma Rainey and the blues. As it turns out -- and as is readily apparent in Claude Purdy's vigorous production at the Alley (through February 13) -- Wilson's interest is as much in the sidemen as in the headliner. Ma herself becomes the musical anchor for what is also a meditation on a people, an industry and an era: the late '20s, on the cusp between the fading of the old-style country blues and the coming of the jazzier, urbane, more syncopated styles most notably represented by Louis Armstrong.

Wilson takes the historical conflict between the two musical styles as his narrative framework, setting the play during the single afternoon of one of Rainey's 1927 Chicago recording sessions. Rainey's retirement from performing, which would occur only one year later, is figuratively foreshadowed by the rude impatience of her young trumpet player, Levee Green, who wants to modernize her arrangements -- with the apparent support of Rainey's white producers -- or else quit to start his own band. This musical tension, amplified tenfold by the racial and class antagonisms that distort and reinforce it, dominates the action and generates its surprisingly violent climax, when it becomes clear that at least for this session, Ma and her music rule.

Wilson's title is in fact a bit misleading. The recording of Rainey's most famous song is never quite completed on stage, and somewhat more surprising is that the most intriguing action and dialogue take place where Ma seldom sets foot: off-session, in the basement room where the four band members -- Levee (Russell Andrews), Cutler (Thomas Martell Brimm), Slow Drag (Byron Wesley Jacquet) and Toledo (Alex Allen Morris) -- rehearse and shoot the bull. The conversation and interaction of the four sidemen is the real heart of the play, and it seems that, if he could, Wilson would sit among them forever, recording whatever they have to say. Their rambling and vivid dialogue -- witty, improvisational, memorial, affectionate, angry, mournful, moving and just plain woofing -- is in fact the playwright's stylistic and emotional homage to the music made by these fictional players.

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Much of what they say is dictated by their immediate circumstances. At the bottom of a hierarchy vividly enacted in David Potts's set, they serve at the mercy of first the white producers (high above in the sound booth) and then of Rainey, the late-arriving queen who reigns over the mid-level recording room. But as much as their talk is momentary, it is historical and contrapuntal; they talk over old loves, old wounds and old memories, they play out their antagonisms and friendships, they preserve the consciousness of their time and people. It is their own tale, and it is the Homeric tale of the tribe.

Cutler, the trombonist and bandleader, is the elder statesman and politician who has to placate his fellows, Ma, and the producers. Slow Drag, the bassist, is Cutler's old companion, who provides easy-going emotional support but otherwise stays out of the way. Pianist Toledo is the group's book-reading intellectual and black conscience, whose exhortations mostly fall on deaf ears. And Levee, the trumpet player, is the angry young man, full of rage at the world and his seemingly resigned companions. In temperament and finally in actions Levee recalls Bigger Thomas of Richard Wright's Native Son. Prevented by circumstances and fear from striking out at the white men who rule his world, he strikes out at those who are closest and least protected.

In each of his plays, August Wilson is dauntingly ambitious, and Ma Rainey is no exception. Its recording-session surface narrative is virtually incidental to its larger tales about African-American life and history, and its running, colloquial conversation touches upon slavery, growing up in the Jim Crow South, the need for black solidarity, the nature of the African heritage, the existence (or non-existence) of God and the Devil, the nature of good and evil, the relationship between work and art, and, oh yes, the best way to play the blues. In the hands of another playwright -- oh, say, Ibsen -- these dialogues would weigh as heavy on the text as Sunday sermons. But Wilson's particular gift -- he has less for structure -- is to embody these concepts in the language of seemingly ordinary men and women, and to make them momentary oracles of wisdom. At least, that is, until each loses the thread in a welter of distraction and contradiction, and their companions pointedly remind them to hand the melody to someone else. "I ain't studying you" is the common refrain, meaning, in effect, the song has gone elsewhere -- shut up and listen.

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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