Critical Response: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at The Huntington Theatre

Last month, I saw August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at The Huntington. I have been spending a lot of time this semester examining August Wilson’s century cycle, so I was excited to see what the Huntington did with the production.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the final play of August Wilson’s century cycle to be produced at The Huntington. The play follows the legendary 1920s blues singer Ma Rainey and her musicians gather in a run-down Chicago studio to record new sides of old favorites when generational and racial tensions suddenly explode. Overall the production was well received throughout Boston. The production had a beautiful set, and an all-star cast, but for a few particular reasons the production didn’t come alive for me.

Music is a major component in all of August Wilson’s work, and it’s a factor that I love. In his work music usually serves a way to unravel the text, or to illuminate some of the undertones of piece. I was struck that in this piece, which is about a Jazz singer, there wasn’t a lot of music. However I know that in the text Wilson didn’t write in more music, as a way to show the tug-of-war between the generations through conflict over the style of the song. The generational divide really spoke to me, and I thought that Liesl Tommy added an interesting flare by capping each of the acts with Michael Jackon’s “They don’t really care about us.” Although adding these bookend montages helped illuminate modern day race relations, the concept felt like it hit the audience on the nose.

While I understand that as a director we must somehow answer how this piece speaks to contemporary audiences, I think that the montages simply served as fillers and the idea behind doing this play now was not woven throughout the story telling. In my opinion, what made the montage and the action of play feel disconnect was the scenic layout. In all cases it is a scenic designer’s responsibility to create a space where the story can be heard. If the production team wanted to tell the story that White America didn’t and still don’t care about Black America, then having the actors come out in modern clothing on a very specific 1920s set becomes confusing. As the audience I get pulled out of the reality of piece.

Historical accuracy is important in Wilson’s century cycle, so I am not suggesting that we ignore the social climate of the time. However I am saying that overall the historical accuracy manifested itself in ways within the set that made it difficult to hear the langue of the piece. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, unlike other of Wilson’s plays, is a langue play. This means that words and story telling are the most important factors to tell the story. The conflict that exists in the play exists between the characters, which means that how bodies move in space is more important that having a scenic layout that is historically accurate.

There were many important questions being posed in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom such as: Is God dead? How does the black community deal with rage? Who is allowed to play the role of the victim? What are the expectations of women/ stereotypes of black men? How much must we hold on the past/ What is our connection to it? The text births timeless questions, but I had a hard time hearing them in the Huntington’s production.