Anyone looking to understand Wilson needs to notice that he not only writes as a music lover who includes songs as integral elements of his plays; he goes further than that, writing his own brand of prose musical. It's certainly evident in the patchy, reportedly plagued-by-dissension revival of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Wilson has often been criticized for redundancy -- for making painfully unforgettable observations about the black experience in America and then making them over and over again. But if he's seen as a sort of composer, the answer to some puzzling aspects of his craftsmanship instantly become as clear as the melody of "St. James Infirmary."
With perhaps the exception of Jitney, his first play, Wilson's works can feel longer than they need to be by as much as half. But though the dramatist is known for rewriting as his plays travel the country en route to Manhattan, he doesn't ever seem to trim them severely. Perhaps that's because, in his musician's ear, they don't sound repetitive. Perhaps he hears them as he hears traditional blues, wherein a lyric is stated and then repeated before a third-line resolution. Perhaps he hears his characters' speeches as instrumental breaks throughout a set of songs. Every musician (read character) is beckoned to have his or her own solo riff.
Viewed from this perspective, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a tone poem. Wilson uses his recording studio setting (here in an evocative, though mammoth, David Gallo design) as a musical metaphor for the frustrations endured by African-American artists who are both taken advantage of and given advantages by white employers. It's the story of ambitious trumpet player Levee (Charles S. Dutton, recreating the role he originated) who wants to modernize Ma Rainey's music while advancing his own band-fronting interests. Expecting to make a deal with studio owner Sturdyvant (Louis Zorich) after Rainey finishes her duties, Levee passes time in the rehearsal room by showing off a new pair of shoes and arguing with Slow Drag (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Toledo (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), and Cutler (Carl Gordon), the three older and wiser sidemen.
Because Ma Rainey (Whoopi Goldberg) is late, the four men tell stories and swap jokes to illustrate their down-home philosophies. (Cutler's the only one who considers himself a philosopher.) Wilson holds audience attention with a bet that Toledo and Levee have on the correct spelling of "music" and with a disagreement between Slow Drag and Cutler over a stick of reefer. There is also a quartet run-through of "Hear Me Talking to You" in which Stephen McKinley Henderson's Slow Drag does some scene-stealing slow-dragging.
Ma Rainey's position in the play is not only secondary to Levee's, it's more background gloss than action. Arriving in a fur-trimmed tapestry coat designed by Toni-Leslie James, Ma throws her weight around; it's all she can do, since she knows that her microphone power is the only power she has in a world run by whites. ("They don't care nothing about me," she blurts. "All they want is my voice.") She keeps a close eye on her lover, Dussie Mae (Heather Alicia Simms), insists that her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Anthony Mackie) intro one of the cuts, prevails over Levee when he wants to record his arrangement, and refuses to lay down a track of her signature song when she realizes that Sturdyvant hasn't provided her nickel Coke. She shows her fabled oomph when she growls "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," but she departs unchanged. It is Levee's recognition of his fecklessness that triggers the play's gloomy denouement and, along with it, Wilson's message: Blacks thwarted by whites take revenge on each other.
Because Wilson's writing is as powerful and as reiterated as Ma's blues -- and also because lighting designer Donald Holder and sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen add their talents to those of set designer Gallo and costumer James -- this reputation-making work still connects, but director Marion McClinton has trouble enhancing the play's strengths and minimizing its weaknesses. Recent scuttlebutt has had it that McClinton was tussling with stars Goldberg and Dutton, and that might explain the problem. Whatever, McClinton's Ma lacks muscle. For one thing, he bobbles Ma Rainey's entrance: The character's high dudgeon should fuel the performance, but Goldberg's entrance is medium dudgeon, and though she gets into her rendition of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," much of her performance isn't so much blues as blahs. Also, curiously, she or McClinton (or both) have chosen to subdue the sexual byplay between Ma and Dussie Mae -- although Heather Alicia Simms, who has a wicked wiggle in her walk, looks game in the role.
Charles S. Dutton knows his part backwards and forwards (that could be part of the problem) but is now probably too old for it. Wilson calls for a man in his early 30s, which Dutton no longer is, and that vitiates the contrast with the older musicians that Levee is meant to represent. Dutton still can rant, though; solid as a punching bag, he wrings emotion from the speeches in which he recounts his mother's rape and God's absence during the event. And there is one truly inspired sequence in his performance: Late in the play, Dutton lies on a bench and places his fedora over his face. When he talks literally through his hat, it's as if he's muted his voice as he would mute his trumpet. Now, that's acting as music, a stunning match for Wilson's writing as music.
The heroes of this production are Stephen McKinley Henderson, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, and Carl Gordon, so convincing as these diverse musicians that when they mime playing their instruments, they still seem indisputably authentic. Louis Zorich as Sturdyvant, Jack Davidson as Ma's manager Irvin, and Anthony Mackie at Sylvester make their lines count, although the show seems a mite tough on 70-ish Zorich, who a number of times has to ascend and descend the long spiral staircase that gives access to the control booth. Well, this incarnation of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a bit of a weary climb for everyone -- audience included.