Pittsburgh, PA
December 8, 2022
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
A & E
Tv Listings
The Dining Guide
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  A & E Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
A & E
Stage Review: 'Ma Rainey' sings deep blues

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

By Anna Rosenstein

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company opens its first season with a vibrant, seething production of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Where: The Penn Theatre, 4809 Penn Ave., Garfield.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays, through March 23.

Tickets: $17.50-$22.50. 412-441-2213.


When it premiered on Broadway in 1984, some critics thought "Ma Rainey" a little light on story. In a conventional sense, it may be, but it's heavy on music, character and emotion.

Wilson's play unfolds with the power of the blues it takes as its background. The event is a recording session of Ma Rainey, the real-life "mother of the blues." The rest is Wilson's imagination as he focuses on the four band members. They banter and speechify, reminisce and argue, and their voices and themes come together or bump against each other just like instruments.

Little by little, these men reveal enough to give a brutal picture of life as a black artist in a white man's world. The idea of being able to control their music and lives becomes the biggest area of contention among the musicians. Slow Drag (Garbie Dukes) and Cutler (Charles E. Timbers Jr.) are weighed down by too many years of cold truth. Toledo (Wali Jamal) argues for political action and vision for the future. Levee (Jay Jones), the youngest, thinks he can play the white man's game and win.

The scenes between these four men are the heart of "Ma Rainey," and director Eileen J. Morris treats them that way. They unfold easily, naturally, and the cast is nothing short of superb. Timbers and Dukes reveal a quiet humor, controlled anger and a wise understanding of life. Dukes is fiery in his own way, a bit on the outside of things with just the right mix of sarcasm and submission. Jones is a revelation as Levee, a bundle of wit and sass with a seething rage barely contained beneath the surface.

The supporting cast isn't as strong, but then the characters aren't as carefully sketched by Wilson. Teri Bridgett brings her wonderful voice to Ma Rainey, though she could use a little more force and less petulance. In the quieter moments with Cutler, Bridgett shows Ma Rainey to have a depth of feeling unrevealed in her stage persona.

The only real disappointment is the recorded music. It's hard to fault this new company, operating on a shoestring budget, for not hiring professional actor/musicians, but it does take away from the emotional force. Still, there are blues enough in Wilson's language to remind us how old sorrows still haunt the present.

Anna Rosenstein is a freelance critic for the Post-Gazette.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections