Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David, and Lillias White in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, directed by Phylicia Rashad, at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum.
Jason Dirden, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, Keith David, and Lillias White in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, directed by Phylicia Rashad, at the Mark Taper Forum for Center Theatre Group.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Center Theatre Group's vibrant production of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom fills the Mark Taper Forum stage with powerhouse performances. Lillias White brings down the house with her rendition of the title song, but it is the four band members, played by Keith David, Glynn Turman, Damon Gupton, and Jason Dirden, who take center stage with electricity and chemistry.

Reaching the end of her recording career as the Mother of the Blues, Ma (White) causes mayhem at the studio while recording several of her songs including "Moonshine Blues" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Her demands exasperate her producer (Matthew Henerson) and Manager (Ed Swidey): A session is delayed while they scramble to bring her a Coca-Cola; she demands that her stuttering nephew (Lamar Richardson) be allowed to record the introduction to "Black Bottom." Meanwhile, the camaraderie of the band in the rehearsal room gets ugly as the musicians reveal how racism in America has made them either immune to it or ready to explode.

What's fascinating about the play is that the title character is not even the protagonist. Her recording session is the catalyst for bringing all of these characters together, but it's not until the Act 1 finale that the main character is revealed; and even then, this does not prepare the audience for the tragic final scenes.

Racism weaves itself throughout the story and affects all the characters. Some, like Ma Rainey, accept the rules and find ways to manipulate the system. The play's two white characters — Ma's manager, Irv, and studio owner Sturdyvant — barely tolerate the artists and see only them only as pawns. While the older musicians have reconciled themselves to their lot, the band's trumpeter Levee seems to be trapped by the system's racial inequity.

Rashad's direction is confident. She stalwartly manages the clashing tones, keeping the tension appropriately understated until it rears its ugly head. The humorous scenes are well timed.

Stellar performances are what really make this production. The entire cast brings focus and vision to their characterizations. White is appropriately caustic and larger than life. She can cut someone to the core with just a look. When recording her numbers, she shows off her remarkable pipes. As Ma's girlfriend Dussie Mae, Nija Okoro is both innocent and dangerously provocative in her flirting. Sweet and sad as the stuttering Sylvester, Lamar Richardson has the audience rooting for his success.

Glynn Turman is hilarious and wise as the sage pianist Toledo. Damon Gupton is commanding as the band leader Cutler, who can shoot the crud with everyone, but is morally driven by his religious convictions. As the hepcat bass player Slow Drag, Keith David exudes laidback coolness. As the cocksure but insecure trumpeter Levee, Jason Dirden is fierce. His Act 1 monologue is particularly piercing because it reveals a side to the character that had been hidden by his boastful attitude.

John Iacovelli intricately dresses his elaborate recording studio set and makes great use of the Taper's space. Emilio Sosa's costumes fit the smooth jazz age atmostphere, and the bedecked frock worn by Ma matches her hurricane personality.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a showcase for this formidably talented cast and creative team. This production proves that the story still resonates today as a snapshot of how the African-American experience has both evolved and remained stagnant.