Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black BottomAshland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson

Much of the impact of this play draws from the emotional baggage carried around by Kevin Kenerly’s character Levee.  His hard-working family’s destruction by violent bigots when Levee was only eight brings menacing emotion into this blues recording session in 1927’s Chicago,  25 years later.

Wilson presents Levee as a young Negro everyman.  Levee’s horrible childhood experience gives him standing as he rubs against the other black musicians in the band.  Two of the older men are preoccupied with their personal pleasures.  The third has turned book worm and experience-made social radical.  Each of the others is more comfortable with themselves than the younger Levee.  They present him with versions of how he could mature.  Except, of course, Levee is too driven to appreciate these alternatives.  His drive and the conflicts give the audience the play.

It is difficult for me to know if white violence was wide-spread enough for it to have touched the lives of all, most, many, or only a few black people at the time.  Did black people feel the weight of the very real racism hanging over them every day?  Was it a constant, imminent danger or was it an everyday annoyance punctuated with apocryphal horrors?

I don’t know.  I suspect that there are few, if any, impartial historical sources to inform me. But, the question is too central to the Levee’s emotional perversion, too central to emotional legitimacy of the play to go unasked.

The play’s assumptions and simple and skillful conflicts are excellently highlighted by this OSF production.  The acting is flawless, and I don’t mean that as faint praise. Yet, I never got over my inability to accept the compelling truth of the situation to enjoy the performance without reservation.  Maybe I am too white, too middle class, too middle age, too comfortable.  Maybe it is the play. Whatever.  But, I know that my unmet personal need didn’t stem from any problems in the cast.

 Kenerly gives crisp, understandable emotion in every scene.  His face is incredible. 

Abdul Salaam El Razzac’s Toledo could be bottled and sold as an archetype. His meaty diatribes on the social condition sound and feel especially powerful with the quick contained delivery given by El Razzac. Frederick Charles Canada (Slow Drag) and Josiah Phillips (Cutler) round out the band with careful character.

Greta Oglesby as the title character is a believably blustery star, and her voice is more than adequate to please the audience in OSF’s small New Theater.  But, even the just-out-of Idaho State, Rex Rabold Fellow, Mark Peterson was delightful as the stuttering Sylvester.

The performance was an exhibition of superb acting. Unfortunately, the play just didn’t resonate to my soul.

Ozdachs rating *** out of ***** .

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