Eugene Nesmith on Stipko Live
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A talented old soul mastering the art of direction in Haarlem
Famed Director discusses Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
This electrifying drama, set in Chicago during the Harlem Renaissance period, explores the blues, what it means to be an artist, and race relations in America. The play's epic voice speaks eloquently about the nature of our culture, the struggles of artists and how different generations have perceived the opportunities available to them: opportunities which reflected changes in the society with regard to power dynamics and race.
The title part of Ma Rainey will be played by Johnnie Mae, who is well-known as Louanne, the notorious housemaid in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." She has performed with the Classical Theatre of Harlem, New Federal Theatre and National Black Theatre and appeared last summer in NHAT's debut production, "Blues for Mister Charlie." She won an AUDELCO Award for Best Supporting Actress in "Why Old Ladies Cry at Weddings" and "What Would Jesus Do?" She appears regularly in TV shows including Showtime's "The Big C," NBC's "30 Rock," FX's "Louie" and all three incarnations of "Law & Order."
The cast also includes Reginald L. Wilson, Joresa Blount, Rollessia Hurd-Rosa, Branden Baskin, Michael Anthony, Luther Wells, Peter Jay Fernandez, Steve Macari, Dennis Jordan, Mikell Pinckney and Mike Metzel. Choreographer is Otis Sallid.
Origins: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a 1982 play - one of the ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright - that chronicles the twentieth century African American experience. The play is set in Chicago in the 1920s (the only play in the group not set in Pittsburgh), and deals with issues of race, art, religion and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers. The play's title refers to a song of the same title by Ma Rainey referring to the Black Bottom dance.
In a Chicago based recording studio, Ma Rainey's band players, Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, and Levee turn up to record a new album of her songs. As they wait for her to arrive they banter, tell stories, joke, philosophise and argue. As the play unfolds it becomes clear that the tension is between the young hot-headed trumpeter Levee who has dreams of having his own band and veteran players Cutler and Toledo.
By the time Ma Rainey does turn up in full regalia and entourage in tow, the recording schedule is badly behind, throwing the white producers Sturdyvant and Irvin into more and more irate disarray. Ma's insistence that her stuttering nephew Sylvester should do the voice intro to the title song causes more havoc. As the band waits for various technical problems to be resolved, the conflict between Levee and Cutler reaches boiling point and violence ensues. Finally, when Levee is simultaneously fired from the band by Ma for his insubordination and then rejected by Sturdyvant who had offered to record his songs his anger becomes too much and he stabs Toledo, killing him, thus destroying any possibility of a future for himself.
It was produced on Broadway on October 11, 1984 and starred Charles S. Dutton as Levee and Theresa Merritt as Ma. Direction was by Lloyd Richards, one of August Wilson's longest collaborators. It received the 1985 Tony Award nomination for Best Play; Dutton and Merrit were nominated for acting awards. The show ran for 276 performances.
It was first performed in the UK at the National Theatre in London in 1989 in a production by Howard Davies starring Clark Peters and Hugh Quarshie as Toledo and Levee. It was enormously well received.
A Broadway revival opened on February 6, 2003 at the Royale Theatre, featuring Charles S. Dutton as Levee and Whoopi Goldberg as Ma. Directed by Marion McClinton, the show ran for 68 performances.
Subsequent UK revivals have taken place in Liverpool at the Playhouse (2004, direction: Gemma Bodinetz) and the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in a production starring Antonio Fargas as Toledo, Ram John Holder as Slow Drag and Johnnie Fiori as Ma (2006, direction: Jacob Murray). [Contributor: The Peg]
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