Funny as hell
When guys get together, we give one another a hard time. We kid, we spar, we argue, we find out who can laugh at his own expense.
On one level, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which the Milwaukee Repertory Theater opened this weekend, is about the way guys are. Wilson puts four musicians in a recording studio for a session in Chicago in 1927. Due in large part to delays caused by their diva, blues legend Ma Rainey, they have lots of time to kill. They’re African American guys, but they’re still guys; they nick one another over everything from choice of footwear to musical styles to larger philosophical and political issues. For the most part, they have a grand time at it.
Wilson crafted brilliant thrusts and parries for Levee, the hotshot and hothead trumpeter (Anthony Fleming III); relaxed trombonist/guitarist Cutler (Ernest Perry, Jr.); the mountainous Slow Drag, a bass player who just wants to enjoy life (A.C. Smith); and Toledo, the well-read pianist with a philosophical and political bent (Alfred H. Wilson). They zing one another relentlessly through Act 1 and much of Act 2, with hilarious results. The four actors made every last line pay off Saturday night, not only with their timing but also the weight of delivery.
They never milked the laughs for their own sake. Fleming, Perry, Smith and Wilson stayed resolutely in character and thoroughly focused on one another; no winks toward the audience here. Black Bottom isn’t A Night at the Opera and these characters aren’t types. Wilson crafted their competitive joshing to gradually reveal the souls of these men and how the facts of 1927 life bent and thwarted their souls. Sometimes, they just can’t make light of their lot, and they address it directly and seriously. They’d really rather not address it, but it comes out, the way hydrostatic pressure cracks a sidewalk. They’ve all been racially wronged and must live with anger and resentment that simmers in proportion to the magnitude of those wrongs.
Ma Rainey (Greta Oglesby) and her menage (Erynne Mackenzie, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis) finally arrive, after we’ve already met her white agent (Jonathan Gillard Daly) and producer/label owner Sturdyvant (William McNulty). Rainey comes on as a vain, impossible, thoroughly unlikable diva; Oglesby is a force of nature in the role. As events unfold and we get to know her, we don’t like Rainey any better, but we come to understand her behavior and see it as the only logical response to her situation. As a black artist in a white economy, she’s being swindled. She’s smart enough to know that and to know that she can’t do much about it — except make life as miserable as possible while she can for Irvin and Sturdyvant.
Quarters are close on Michael Ganio’s three-level set. That’s good. The proximity of the actors ratchets up the tension automatically, especially when everyone crowds into the studio for the recording sessions. (They appear to be the climactic moments of the play. Wilson has one more surprise beyond them, but I won’t disclose it here.) Actors bustle and up and down stairs into the studio and dance and sway through the (recorded, beautifully synch’d) music. Director Ron O.J. Parson earned his money here, with elegant, informal choreography that kept the action utterly clear and gave the show physical momentum.
Wilson wrote so much anger and pain in that character, especially, and into all the African-American characters. He has them express it in ways that speak to us in human terms as personal tragedies. The most touching moment in the play follows a joyous passage in which the players lose themselves in transcendent music. That elation evaporates palpably in a few seconds. They dwelt in Paradise as long as they sustained the music. When it stopped, they were back in America.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs through March 27 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. For tickets and schedules, visit The Rep’s website or call the box office, 414 224-9490.