Johnnie Mae (center) and company
in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
(© Julia Slaff)
Johnnie Mae (center) and company
in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
(© Julia Slaff)
When August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, now being presented by the New Haarlem Arts Theatre at Aaron Davis Hall, originally arrived on Broadway during the 1984-85 season, it heralded the emergence of a major writer.

Stlll, it will come as a shock to those unfamiliar with this show that it is not a musical revue of Ma Rainey's work; rather, it is a deeply serious exploration of racism, complete with a dramatic look at the collateral damage it causes on the lives of everyone in its wake. Fortunately, the current revival serves Wilson well, as a strong cast under the intense direction of Eugene Nesmith drives the play's text with pace and power.

The show takes place during one afternoon in a Chicago recording studio in 1927. Events both petty and profound take place during those few hours, but the brilliance of the play is that one is often surprised to find which are the petty and which are the profound.

Ma Rainey was known as the Mother of the Blues, but Wilson is interested in Ma Rainey (played by the superior Johnnie Mae) only insofar as she was a woman of color who understood that she possessed a little bit of power because she had a product that had commercial value in White America. Accordingly, she wields that power with the absolute knowledge that she's going to be cheated by the white recording studio owner, but both to get whatever she can, including her hold on her dignity, she storms against their demands.

Meanwhile, other conflicts are arising among the members of Ma Rainey's band. Among those four musicians is a gifted horn player, Levee (Reginald L. Wilson) with aspirations to have his own band and to play a new kind of improvised music (jazz rather than the blues). However, Levee is carrying a heavy load of rage in his soul, caused by horrible acts of racism perpetrated against his mother and father.

In the second act, tormented to the breaking point, he rails against God and tries to take on The Almighty in a knife-fight. The bold conception of this scene is gripping all by itself, and Wilson executes it with fierce conviction.

All of the band members give excellent performances. Luther Wells plays Slow Drag, the bass player, with quiet, good humor (plus, he's the only member of the cast who gets to sing, and he does so with style); Mikell Pinkney plays Cutler, the band's ostensible leader with sly good humor; and Peter Jay Fernandez shines as Toledo, the soft-spoken intellectual in the group, who is the conscience of the play.

The band was clearly chosen for their acting chops rather than their musical acumen. The canned music that they supposedly are playing is not well done. However, it's a minor flaw in a fine production of a powerful play that remains piercing in its honesty.