Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Critical Response

The Huntington Theatre Company’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson, directed by Liesl Tommy, is a funny, engaging, violent, tragic, endearing, and, at time,s overwhelming story about the blues, and much more.

The characters in this play are all rich and fully developed, and it takes three hours to even begin to unpack their personalities. August Wilson writes ten dynamic characters, and the Huntington cast captures that dynamism for their audience.

The characters are constantly fighting for something. There is a constant tension in the play, alleviated once or twice, only to be re-ignited stronger than before, moments later. Ma Rainey (Yvette Freeman) and Levee (Jason Bowen) are the leading proponents of this tension, and often are most affected by this tension. They are certainly the strongest characters in the play, and were also the strongest actors on stage.

Freeman portrayed Ma Rainey as a shrill, unstoppable diva, who underneath it all, is just a black woman trying to make it the only way she knows how. Brown was perhaps less stable in his portrayal of Levee than his more seasoned cast mate. But he still clearly gave the role everything he had in him. The largest flaw in Brown’s choices was the lack of build for the character. Levee seemed too playful, and, at times, childlike to be able to make the choices he made at the end of the play. I understand Levee’s choices from a textual analysis only, but I feel the way the character was portrayed in this particular production, made the choice so ridiculous it almost negates the impact of the murder.

Racism is a clear and constant theme in many of Wilson’s works. One of the most subtle and interesting conflicts in this production was trying to decide who the bad guy was, who was the real oppressor, and where to place the blame.

Will Lebow plays Irvin, one of the producers at the recording studio. To the black characters in the play he is just another oppressive white man, but in many ways he is a very sympathetic character. He puts up with a lot from Ma just so she will stay and record the album, and often Ma is trying to be as difficult as possible. He feels pressure from Ma to meet her demands. He feels pressure from his business partner to make the record happen as cheaply as possible. And, he feels his own personal financial pressure to keep his business running. He is, in many ways, a very desperate man.  His character provided the human side to the stereotype of the “oppressive white man” that we see in the other few white male characters.

While I do believe this play is a bit too long, Tommy’s directing style certainly brought some magic to some slower moments. The introduction that Tommy created, gave the audience a feel for the kind of show they were about to watch, right off the bat. It began with young people walking into an old recording studio, while the older white characters filtered in, as the ghosts of the past. This brought the audiences attention to the history of blacks in this country that this play is rooted in. It was a beautiful scene, describing the cycle of how humanity will always look to their past for answers and for problems that still plague them.

The music used in the show is lovely, but Liesl Tommy made it theatrical. The actors miming playing their instruments allowed for a manipulation of the volume that was nothing but pure theatre magic. Instead of having the actors stop playing their instruments, the sound cue was faded out, making it feel like the scene itself was fading out, or like we were walking down a hall and the music was fading out behind us. This allowed for a manipulation of sound that was different than in any other play I have seen. The use of instruments in this manner also brought the play out of realism a bit, and into an almost playful and magical atmosphere.

Overall, I think this production was incredibly successful. August Wilson is a great playwright, but I think in the wrong hands his work can lose some of its magic. The Huntington’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a great production, and that greatness was brought about by seasoned professionals communicating, and playing with their craft.

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