Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at Ensemble is a Scorcher of a Play

Roenia Thompson and Anthony August in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Roenia Thompson and Anthony August in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Photo by David Bray
Much like the Hollywood studios during the Golden Age, Houston theaters have their own particular style, a uniqueness all their own.

When Main Street performs a Noel Coward comedy, it will be presented iced cold, brittle and bracing. Catastrophic has a patent on its in-house iconoclastic playwright Mickle Maher; no other company serves him so well. When not revving up a world premiere, the Alley dusts off masterpieces by Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill with deep-dish, gleaming polish. For a searing look into Ibsen, Chekhov, or Shaw, who's more in tune than Classical?

But the Ensemble has a lock on August Wilson and his “American Century Cycle,” that ten-play epic exploration, dissection, haunting reverie and gut-punch of the black experience. There's nothing like it in the canon. The Ensemble mines Wilson as if surveying an archaeological dig, boring deep, examining every layer and shard. They find gold.

Set in 1927 at a Chicago recording studio and chronologically the third in the monumental series, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is music transformed to drama. There are riffs, improvs, even arias for the characters. It's fluid and melodious, filled with grace notes and plenty of swing. It's a history of the blues in two acts. Every Wilson play is replete with internal elegance – his vernacular dialogue sounds timeless, like Mozart. If you want dissonance, just wait. A master craftsman, Wilson knows exactly when to turn up the heat, when to shock, when it's time for trumpets and tympani. Black Bottom is a scorcher of a play, and Ensemble's production, under ace director Eileen Morris, is a signature event of this theater season.

On the surface, Black Bottom's all music. Diva Rainey (Roenia Thompson), one of the first black singers to have a recording contract, is cutting a new series of songs for Paramount. Heralded as ”the mother of the blues,” she has undeniable star power but what does that get her? She's demanding – she won't sing unless she has a Coca-Cola – and throws her weight around the only way she knows. She brooks no interference from her loyal band members, even when prodigious trumpeter Levee (the phenomenal Timothy Eric) writes a hotter arrangement of her standard, “Black Bottom.” She's used by the white producer for her voice alone and is fully aware that she rules only when she's inside the studio. Outside, she can't even hail a cab or stay in a respectable hotel. “As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.”

“Just some dog in the alley.” That, of course, is Wilson's subtext. He weaves black identity within ambition within struggle. How can you be yourself when your voice – your soul, your history – is appropriated and there's nothing you can do about it? The four musicians spell out the problems.

Young Levee, the new face of jazz, has the dream and the talent, but he's a hothead haunted by past family horrors, a spring too tightly wound to listen to the wisdom of his elders. Rebelling against the “jugband” music he's forced to perform, he's got all the answers but no time to waste. He wants his recognition now. Eric turns Levee into jive-ass motormouth, full of quicksilver and danger. You watch him every moment. He's keen as a knife blade, yet tensely vulnerable, as if born in the wrong decade. The play is his, and his ultimate tragedy is universal and shocking.

Pianist Toledo (the miraculously smooth Wayne DeHart, a certifiable Houston theater treasure) is Ur-Wilson, the illiterate philosopher king. His satiric bits on “African conceptualization” and “left-overs” radiate with Wilson's particular take on black humanity. He is the play's rational seer. Like Ma, he, too, understands how they all fit uncomfortably into the white man's worldview. He can look forward, but like mythic Cassandra, no one believes him. While rolling reefers, trombonist Cutler (Wilbert Williams, sublimely adept at Wilson's poetry and fire) relies on deep faith for his survival. I'll play whatever Ma wants, he says bluntly, just show me the money. Slapping the bass is Slow Drag (Jason Carmichael), who's content to keep peace among the guys, as long as the gigs keep him close to the ladies.

Among the others: slimy producer Sturdyvant (John Stevens), who uses black talent as financial stepping stone; Dussie Mae (Callina Anderson), Ma's opportunistic much-younger lover who's in it for the clothes and a quickie from smooth operator Levee, though she's not particularly fleshed out as a character; and Ma's stuttering nephew Sylvester (Anthony August), used as pawn by Ma during one of her power plays in the studio.

Accommodator, agitator, appeaser, wily saint, vocal angel, exceptional musician – all are iconic faces in Wilson's mesmerizing world. Of all playwrights, Wilson may be the most Shakespearean. He imbues his flawed people with extraordinary poetry, as if from the gods, yet keeps them grounded to a suspended reality only theater can depict.

Bar none, August Wilson is a master. His plays are uniquely his own, uniquely black, uniquely American, and, quintessentially, the most human. Always the most human. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is raw, ethereal, provoking, comic, horrifying. Isn't this what a play's supposed to be?

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Through June 3. Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information, call 713-520-0055 or visit $30-$44.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover