It seems fitting that People Productions is singing its swan song with the regional premiere of August Wilson's classic play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." In his Century Cycle of plays, Wilson set out to chronicle the African-American experience in 20th-century America, and for the past 17 years, soon-to-retire Richard Scharine and his little-theater-company-that-could have brought slices of that experience to Salt Lake audiences. From veteran playwrights like Wilson and James Baldwin to exciting newcomers like Dominique Morisseau, People Productions has staged vivid portraits of African-American life that we would never have seen without it.
People Productions exits with a thoughtful and eloquent ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’
With its Broadway production in 1984, "Ma Rainey" announced the emergence of a major American playwright and remains one of Wilson's best-known plays. It showcases the importance of two of Wilson's trademark themes — the blues and storytelling — in African-American life. The character of Ma is based on Gertrude Rainey, the mother of the blues.
The play is set in 1927 on Chicago's South Side, where Ma and her band have assembled to make a recording. Ma is very late, and that gives Wilson the chance to do what he loves best — let the band members share stories about their lives. There are four of them: Cutler (Hayward Buchanan), Slow Drag (Chris Curlett), Toledo (William Ferrer) and the explosive Levee (Calbert Beck), and each has a tale about the difficulty or danger of being black in a white society.
The three older men are resigned to doing things the white man's way. "I just play the piece — whatever they want," Cutler says. "White men don't care about who or what you is," and Toledo, a self-educated philosopher, adds, "We done sold what we are to become something else." But Levee is cocky and ambitious; he writes music and wants to have his own band. "I know how to handle white folks," he boasts. His anger and frustration when he's proven wrong lead to tragedy.
It turns out that Ma (Robin Renee) is the one who can get her way with Mel (Hugh Hanson), the white record producer, and Irvin (Larry Webb), her white manager, and that's only because they know she makes money for them. She's dominating and demanding, and Renee attacks the role with a mix of self-righteous dignity and steely determination. "This be an empty world without the blues," she announces, and her mission is to fill the emptiness.
As with most community theater productions, some cast members are more experienced than others, and the performances vary accordingly. Ferrer's smooth-talking Toledo is thoughtful and charming in sharp contrast to Beck's abrasive, quick-tempered Levee. Hanson creates a cold, manipulative Mel, and Webb's Irvin alternately blusters and backpedals in his attempts to please everyone. Curlett is affable and laid-back as Slow Drag, and Buchanan's realistically resigned Cutler struggles to maintain control.
Although the pace sometimes lags, Scharine's steady direction keeps everyone together. The play is talky, but Wilson's talk is always worth listening to.
Jacob Bruner's utilitarian, two-level set with its poster-plastered walls captures the barebones look of an early recording studio, and David and Jacob Bruner's lighting does its best with the Sugar Space's limited resources. Linda Moon's costumes, especially Levee's splashy suit and shoes, exude 1920s fashion.
People Productions will be missed, but Alicia and Camille Washington's Good Company in Ogden is working to keep the tradition of African-American theater alive in Utah. As "Ma Rainey" reveals, playwrights like Wilson have a lot to tell us about the mixed bag that is the American experience.
People Productions’ “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is uneven but captures the wit and wisdom of August Wilson’s vision of 20th-century African-American life.
When » Reviewed on April 14; continues Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and with a matinee at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where » Sugar Space Warehouse Theatre, 132 S. 800 West, Salt Lake City
Tickets » $15; $10 for students and seniors. Visit www.peopleproductions.org for information and reservations; tickets at the door.
Running time » Two hours and 45 minutes (including an intermission)