‘Ma Rainey’ belting it out at 20

  • By Mike Murray / Herald Writer
  • Thursday, January 20, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Seattle playwright August Wilson paints on a big canvas: the entire 20th century. His subject is the history of black Americans.

Wilson is the author of a cycle of plays that document and illuminate that history, a decade-by-decade cannon of plays that have earned him a worldwide audience and recognition and countless theater awards including Pulitzer Prizes for “Fences” (1986) and “The Piano Lesson” (1990).

Wilson has been called America’s greatest working playwright and a modern-day Shakespeare, and this year he completes the cycle with the opening of the tenth and final play.

The work that began this remarkable odyssey is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and on the 20th anniversary of its premiere, the Seattle Repertory Theatre is mounting a new production that opens Wednesday.

Wilson filters the black American experience, a long and arduous struggle for equality and real freedom, through many lenses. In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” it’s the music industry of the Roaring ’20s.

The Ma Rainey in this play was a real person. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, “Mother of the Blues,” was a legendary singer in the early days of the Chicago blues who had a profound influence on American music and singers in the Jazz Age.

The action takes place over a single day in a Chicago recording studio. The year is 1927 and Ma Rainey is here with her band to cut a record.

She’s a rare thing in racist and segregated America of the 1920s: a black woman who has achieved recognition and success in the white world. She can sing the blues.

Ma Rainey has an attitude, but the white men who own the recording studio deal with it because she makes them money.

“As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on,” she says.

Wilson examines big themes such as blacks’ struggle for empowerment and equality by focusing on individual characters and events: The contentious recording session, Ma Rainey wanting it her way and the back-stage bickering among the black musicians who quarrel and spar with each other, ultimately with tragic results.

The Seattle Rep has long been a staging ground for the plays of August Wilson, a Pittsburgh native who made Seattle his home several years ago. And Jonathan Wilson returns to the Rep to direct this production.

Wilson, a professor of theater and drama at Loyola University in Chicago for nearly 30 years, directed August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” at the Rep in 1998.

“I remember directing a production of (‘Ma Rainey’) in Chicago in the late 1980s,” Wilson said in a telephone interview. “The reception was just overwhelming. It was very hard to shut it down; it ran for six months.”

Twenty years on, the play still resonates with audiences, Jonathan Wilson said.

“It teaches black Americans about their own history, the world of black musicians and how they were treated in the 1920s,” he said. “It has a power about it that stays with you the rest of your life.”

Among the challenges of staging “Ma Rainey” is casting. The players must be actors first, and then musicians. “When you put these two talents together … that’s a nationwide search,” the director said.

He is reunited in this production with Cynthia Jones, who appeared in the Rep’s production of “Seven Guitars.” Jones has the voice and the acting chops needed to portray Ma Rainey.

August Wilson is a poet as well as a playwright, and the poet comes through in the language.

As the actors burrow into the words, “they feel and believe that the language is almost like a musical composition,” Jonathan Wilson said.

“The speeches themselves are arias,” he said. Doing his plays “is akin to doing the works of Shakespeare or any of the great poets.”

In the line of duty: Seattle Children’s Theatre continues its 30th anniversary season with the world-premiere production of “The Red Badge of Courage,” a stage adaptation of the historic Civil War novel by Stephen Crane that opens tonight.

“The Red Badge of Courage” brings to life Crane’s novel of a young soldier’s coming-of-age during wartime. Published in 1895, “The Red Badge of Courage” is noted as being the “first modern war novel,” told from the point of view of an ordinary young soldier. His name is Henry Fleming, and as he marches into his first battle, his conflicting feelings about courage, fear and duty come into play. First he runs from battle, but redeems himself in one astonishing act of courage.

Joe Sutton adapted the book for the stage; direction is by Linda Hartzell, Seattle Children’s Theatre artistic director. Performances run through March 5 at the Charlotte Martin Theatre.

Shakespeare in love: Seattle Shakespeare Company presents the Bard’s frothy romantic comedy, “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” in an updated production at the Center House Theatre, Seattle Center.

The company puts this work in a more modern context, advancing the time to 1905, where the King of Navaree has sequestered himself away from the world and with three close buddies has sworn off women while he studies.

It’s at this moment that a pretty young princess and her three ladies-in-waiting arrive who can’t be resisted. Will the King and his friends stick to their guns? Will they waver? It’s a romance, remember.

This is the second production in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2004-05 season. Aaron Levin directs, with performances running through Feb. 13.

Chris Bennion photo

Thomas M. Brimm (left), Don Mayo, director Jonathan Wilson, Cynthia Jones, Chic Street Man and Alvin Keith in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Chris Bennion photo

Lathrop Walker in Seattle Children’s Theatre’s “The Red Badge of Courage.”

Where to see it

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: A Seattle Repertory Theatre production Wednesday through Feb. 19 at the Bagley Wright Theatre, Seattle Center. $10-$46, 206-443-2222, 877-900-9285, www.seattlerep.org.

“The Red Badge of Courage”: A Seattle Children’s Theatre production tonight through March 5 at the Charlotte Martin Theatre, Seattle Center. $14-$28, 206-441-3322, www.sct.org.

“Love’s Labour’s Lost”: A Seattle Shakespeare Company production through Feb. 13 at the Center House Theatre, Seattle Center. $18-$26, 206-733-8222, www.seattleshakes.org.

Where to see it

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: A Seattle Repertory Theatre production Wednesday through Feb. 19 at the Bagley Wright Theatre, Seattle Center. $10-$46, 206-443-2222, 877-900-9285, www.seattlerep.org.

“The Red Badge of Courage”: A Seattle Children’s Theatre production tonight through March 5 at the Charlotte Martin Theatre, Seattle Center. $14-$28, 206-441-3322, www.sct.org.

“Love’s Labour’s Lost”: A Seattle Shakespeare Company production through Feb. 13 at the Center House Theatre, Seattle Center. $18-$26, 206-733-8222, www.seattleshakes.org.

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