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Ma Rainey's black bottom.

American culture contains only so many myths or stories of central, importance, and one of those is surely the story of black music and its fate in the white world. Black musicians invent a certain style, demonstrate its brilliance and get clobbered for their efforts, is roughly how the story goes. You don't see it all that frequently in American literature, but on the stage it is a staple. Several versions have appearqd on and off Broadway in the last year or two alone. There was the revival of Jerome Kern's Showboat from the 1920s, which uses the black music story as an important subtheme. There was the revival of Richard Rodger's On Your Toes from the 1930s, in which white tap-dancers substitute for black musicians and all mention of race is expunged, permitting a happy ending; but the theme remains jazz versus prejudice. There is Dream-girls, which tells the story from a black point of view, with a soul trio as its focus. An aspect of the story emerged in Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play (now the movie A Soldier's Story), in which a blues musician in the Army is persecuted. And here it is one more time from a black point of view in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson (at the Cort Theatre), with a blues band of the 1920s as the focus.

The appeal of the black music story is so obvious there's no point in spelling out its elements A to Z. But perhaps I'll go as far as D or E. The story has simplicity but also depth, which is why it qualifies as myth. It conjures a simple sympathy for the victims of bigotry, since musicians are by definition an inoffensive class, and if they are discriminated against, the injustice is undeniable. No explanation need be made about how these are well-behaved, decent musicians, as opposed to nasty, thuggish ones who deserve what they get. Then again, the story is not so simple and shows aspects of racial prejudice that can be harder to detect than straight-out Jim Crow injustice. (Jim Crow, by the way, was a nineteenth-century black minstrel dancer, and I wonder if he didn't play a role in one of the earliest versions of the black music story). The story is very good, for instance, at showing the sometimes subtle snobbism insidious of prejudices--that makes people foolishly denigrate black music as crude and unserious. You see this in the all-white On Your Toes, where the partisans of classical ballet look down their noses at tap dance. Not that snobbism need always be white or especially upper class. A vicious black version is shown in A Soldier's Play, where the evil black sergeant despises back-coutry blues.

At a deeper level, the black music story shows bias and bigotry in a dialectical light, every oppression matched by some from of resistance--usually, resistance that is moral and esthetic. The musicians are victims, but they are not only victims. The world has pretty much come to agree by now that black music is one of the glories of American culture, and even a tin-ear musician is likely to reflect some of the collective triumph. Needless to say, the black music story doesn't bother with tin-ear musicians anyway. What it shows is black music blossoming magnificently before your eyes, and you come to feel that however downtrodden the musicians may be, they are better people with bigger souls and bigger talents than their oppressors. But it's true that the triumphal aspect of the story usually runs in a tragic vein. At perhaps its deepest level the story shows how the pressure of bigotry and the resulting sense of powerlessness among blacks produces the most awful violence, black against black, the violence that you see in A Soldier's Play or, more mildly, in Dreamgirls. And to mention one more trait, the story has an unusual quality among the great American myths: it is made for the stage.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom offers a classic version of the black music story and does it from the moment the curtain goes up. The white owner of a record company ascends to his glass-enclosed control room and glowers at the studio floor below, where Ma Rainey and her band are going to cut a record. You notice immediately that here is a picture of how life appears to an ordinary black musician. The musician is down below actually making the music, and white society lurks above, isolated behind glass, controlling events for its own purposes. The four band members come in and spend their time warming up and hanging out in the rehearsal room, waiting for Ma to arrive so they can record. She does arrive, delays occur, they perform, tension produce a climax--and in the course of these events, each level of the classic story takes shape upon the stage. We see the straight-out Jim Crow bigotry, mostly through long monologues by the band members, who recall things that happened long ago. We see the more subtle bias, the denigration of the music by the man who is prospering from it, the record company owner, who hopes to get into a line that's more "respectable" than issuing blues recrods. We see how casually and callously the musicians are exploited.

We also see--and this is the strongest, most theatrical part of the play--how the musicians resist by affirming their superiority over the white powers-that-be. Ma enters the studio dressed like the Queen of England, trailing her retinue of a nephew and a lesbian lover, in an obvious challenge to the authority of her dour white manager and the equally dour studio owner. She behaves outrageously. She holds up the session while someone fetches her a Coke. And for a moment--so carefully are Ma and her challenge presented--we're not sure how to judge her. Maybe the owner is right and she is an impossible, disrespectful fool. But then we remember that Ma is the Mother of the Blues, that she's a great artist, that she can do things the owner could never dream of doing. We remember that Ma has been the meat and potatoes of this record company. Or never mind remembering, she tells us. And why shouldn't she hold up the works while someone runs out to fetch her a Coke? It may be that her imperial authority doesn't extend very far in white society, and that not even Ma Rainey can hail a taxi in the streets of Chicago. So what? She's still the Mother of the Blues. And having watched all this, and listened to her sing, we also watch the last and most terrible level of the black music story unfold, and we see the toll that resistance of this sort takes on the black world.

Now, not everything in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is presented as well as one might wish. My colleague from The Village Voice Julius Novick has been railing against the naturalist cliches in Ma Rainey, and he's got a point. The long monologues by the trumpet player introduce the traumas of his childhood, the action introduces the traumas of his adulthood, and no one will fail to guess that a violent explosion is on its way. It arrives--boom!--but it can't help sounding like bombast. The direction by Lloyd Richards and the set by Charles Henry McClennahan are no help in this regard. A nonnaturalist direction and set might have made the script cliches appear as conscious artifice. But the set and direction are eminently realistic, at least are meant to be, and the predictability comes off as unintentional.

The music is another problem. Ma Rainey has received a good deal of favorable publicity for its successful use of actors who aren't musicians (with the exception of Theresa Merritt, who can really sing). The whole play is designed to prevent the actors from having to perform more than an occasional note, and when the recording session finally begins, a rather well-done tape takes over and the actors merely pretend to play. But the few notes they offer in warming up fail to prepare us for that tape. The trumpet and trombone players have bad tones; they play tentatively. Yet the tape is smooth and professional. Nor do the actors behave like musicians. Real musicians love their "axes" and find it hard not to play them. But these stage musicans spend a couple of hours fingering their axes without much urge at all to tootle a few bars. The scene would be more convincing if the actors left their instruments alone instead of using them so promiscuously as props. In fact, the play would have been much better if it had been cast with actors who are also musicians, not an impossible combination, or if the band had been expanded to include a couple of real musicians. That way the play wouldn't be so frustrating to blues lovers who, when they see a blues band standing around with instruments in hand, want to hear, after all, the blues, and would prefer it live.

Too much is missing from Ma Rainey because the music is missing. We should feel that Ma and the band are great musicians not only because the play-wright means us to feel this, and not only because they eventually do perform a first-rate blues number with the aid of tape and loudspeakers, but also because throughout the play this fact is evident, as it would be with real musicians. There is a subtheme, too, that might have been made more prominent. The trumpet player has turned against Ma's music, which he derides as jug-band stuff, and says he has developed a more modern style. A tiny hint of this style appears on the tape, and you are meant to feel that the trumpet player is on to something, perhaps that he's extremely talented. (The real Ma Rainey's trumpet player for some of her 1920s sessions was Louis Armstrong.) But even if he's not supposed to be a titan of jazz, you should feel in this trumpet player's pressure for innovation some of the dynamic of jazz development, the excitement of a musical genre being developed before your eyes. You should be able to see and not just deduce that Ma and her band figure in an important cultural movement, that these people aren't the humble offhand musicians you might take them for. But this is something the production can't deliver.

So Ma Rainey's Black Bottom stumbles where it should fly. Still, it remains a better play than its flaws might lead you to think--better because the black music story is such a powerful one, and better because of the sharp ear and trusty instinct Wilson and Richards bring to black speech. There is a sweet slowness to the dialogue in Ma Rainey that is characteristic of a certain kind of Southern talk. Nothing cliched about this aspect of the play, and as the dialogue circles around, now indulging a monologue, now bantering back and forth in the rehearsal room, you get the feeling that the play as a whole is a kind of blues song: relaxed, colloquial, deep, punctuated by solos, shaped by a pattern of theme, repetition and climax. The band (Charles S. Dutton, Joe Seneca, Leonard Jackson, Robert Judd) couldn't be better at evoking this feeling. John Carpenter and Lou Criscuolo are properly remote as the studio owner and Ma's manager, respectively. Theresa Merritt makes a magnificent Mother of the Blues. And since the play is the first by August Wilson to arrive in New York, one can say that it contains and additional element of suspense, a sort of suspended dominant chord at the end containing the question, What will his next play be like?
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Title Annotation:Cort Theatre, New York
Author:Berman, Paul
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Dec 8, 1984
Words:1961
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