Culture, identity & the meaning of the blues in Soulpepper’s powerful, entertaining Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Top: Alex Poch-Goldin. Bottom: Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards & Alana Bridgewater. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us to 1920s Chicago, where the race, power and creative exploitation collide in a lively, tension-filled recording studio session in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. This is the first time Ma Rainey has been performed in Canada since 1985, shortly after its 1984 premiere on Broadway.

A faint haze hangs over the dark, empty Chicago recording studio, conjuring visions of musicians and singers smoking between—or even during—takes (set and lighting design by Ken MacKenzie). Gradually, the space is peopled with the steady, quiet pace of familiar routine. Cranky, gravel-voiced studio owner Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Ma’s put-upon, ingratiating manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) get set up in the booth and on the floor. Then the boys in the band arrive: the bookish, philosophical piano man Toledo (Beau Dixon); the quiet, no-nonsense bassist Slow Drag (Neville Edwards); and fastidious, practical band leader/banjo player/trombonist Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). Last to arrive is the energetic, stylish Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray), the new whiz kid on the trumpet, arriving late and showing off a new pair of shoes. The band hangs out in the rehearsal room downstairs (downstage), shooting the breeze and rehearsing a bit while they wait for Ma to arrive. The tension is already cooking, as Ma is running late, the play list is ever-changing, and the ambitious new kid—who has his sights set on starting his own band and recording his own music—doesn’t seem to think he needs to rehearse.

When the big energy, take-charge Mother of the Blues Ma (Alana Bridgewater) finally arrives an hour late, resplendent in a green dress (costumes by Alexandra Lord) with her young flapper girlfriend Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith) and sharp-dressed nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) in tow, there’s more arguing and scrambling. An irritated policeman (Derek Boyes) has followed them into the studio, charging Sylvester with reckless driving and Ma with assault; Irvin quickly “handles” the situation, then finds himself under orders to arrange for repairs to Ma’s car. And then there’s the ongoing debate over which version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” they’re going to record: the original or Levee’s version. And Ma wants Sylvester, who stutters, to do the spoken intro on the recording; a decision that’s greeted with thinly veiled annoyed cynicism. Irvin continues bouncing like a ping pong ball between Sturdyvant, Ma and the band, playing peacekeeper, and taking care of all the concerns and issues. Young Levee has eyes for Dussie Mae; Cutler is trying to keep the band on track, especially Levee; and Slow Drag just wants to get it over with and go home. Toledo has his books to keep him company, while Sylvester and Dussie Mae are thrilled to be there—and Dussie Mae has taken notice of Levee’s attention.

Conversations among the band range from the comic to the tragic, from day-to-day shenanigans, to stories of personal struggle and the lived experience of being Black in America. And though she comes off as a diva, Ma is a shrewd businesswoman; she knows what she does and does not have control over. Where she can have a say, you can bet she’ll have it! Commanding respect with her seemingly unreasonable demands, Ma navigates a world where artists—particularly artists of colour—are used up for their creative talents then cast aside; in the meantime, they’re paid a fraction of what they’re worth while white producers, managers and studio owners profit handsomely from their work. And, for Ma and the band, the blues are more than just a money-making music genre—it’s “life’s way of talking.”

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Virgilia Griffith & Lovell Adams-Gray. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Outstanding, compelling work from this tight, multi-talented ensemble. Bridgewater shines as the unstoppable, talented Ma—a force to be reckoned with. A large woman with a larger than life personality, Ma is an exacting professional; a fierce mamma bear when it comes to protecting loved ones; and a tender, generous lover. Like most women in her situation, a respected and highly popular artist like Ma has a reputation for being “difficult”—a charge that would never be levelled at a white male artist in her shoes.

Adams-Gray does an amazing job peeling back the layers of Levee. From a traumatized child to a volatile young man, Levee is confident in his talent and eager to make a name for himself as a composer and band leader—but, unlike his more seasoned bandmates, has yet to learn how the game is played. Stewart is a delight as the shy, child-like Sylvester; wide-eyed, and filled with wonder and joy to be in the studio. With Ma’s support and encouragement, and bolstered by his plan to send money home to his mother, we see Sylvester’s self-confidence blossom as he works hard through his speech impediment to do the best he can on the recording.

Though set in the 20s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom speaks to the situation of artists today. While artists have gained more control over their work and working conditions, the industry still has work to do with regard to cultural and creative exploitation, and assigning labels of “difficult” on women and artists of colour. And we only have to look at Ma and Levee to see that artists must learn to play the game and be at peace over that which they cannot control—or be swept up in the undertow of their own frustrated ambition and expectations.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre—now extended by popular demand to June 9. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

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The power of hope & community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts

Photo by Shaun Benson: Robert Persichini and Nabil Rajo in Superior Donuts

Coal Mine Theatre continues its 2016-17 season with the Canadian premiere of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, directed by Ted Dykstra, and opening last night to a packed house and a standing ovation at its home at 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto.

When we first see Superior Donuts, the shop appears to have been abandoned. The shelves are empty, there’s litter strewn across the counter and floor, chairs and stools overturned, and the word “Pussy” has been spray painted in neon orange on the chalkboard green wall. As the play opens, though, we learn it’s been vandalized; and Max (Alex Poch-Goldin), who owns the neighbouring DVD store, is giving his account to police officers Randy Osteen (Darla Biccum) and James Bailey (Michael Blake) after calling it in. We also learn from Max that Superior Donuts owner Arthur (Robert Persichini) has been absent lately, and hasn’t opened the shop in a couple of days, as he mourns the loss of his ex-wife.

Arthur arrives as Max is finishing up with the police, already slow moving and numb as he takes in the damage, eventually realizing he’s missed his coffee delivery, so has no coffee to offer anyone. Left alone to tidy up, he’s roused by an insistent and persistent knock on the locked door; a kid responding to his help wanted notice. Arthur reluctantly opens the door to Franco (Nabil Rajo), a fast-talking young man with seemingly boundless energy; and after an unusual and certainly creative job interview, Franco is hired. Meanwhile, Franco has troubles of his own; bookie Luther (Ryan Hollyman) and his muscle Kevin (Jon Lachlan Stewart) pay him a visit after Kevin sees him working at the shop. Franco has a large gambling debt, and Luther is under extreme pressure from the powers that be—he wants his money now and the clock is running out for Franco.

Superior Donuts is the last of a dying breed of beloved mom and pop stores in an increasingly gentrified neighbourhood, where Starbucks and Whole Foods are popping up and challenging businesses that have been fixtures for years. It’s also an island of misfit toys, with its own cast of quirky, multicultural characters. There’s local regular Lady (Diana Leblanc), a struggling alcoholic with a love of red lipstick; and the outspoken Russian Max, who has big plans for expanding his DVD shop into an electronics empire and wants to buy the donut shop so he can fulfill his dream—these two get free coffee and donuts. We also get to know the two cops: Randy comes from a sports-loving family full of  brothers and cops, and has an eye for Arthur; and James and his wife are Star Trek fans who enjoy cosplay at fan conventions. And, while he’s largely silent with the others, Arthur speaks to us throughout in wistful, heartfelt and nostalgic monologues—personal history anecdotes filled with notes of regret.

Franco is full of ideas for improvement for Superior Donuts, from healthier menu choices to poetry and reading events. He also has ideas for improving Arthur, and sets out to be both style consultant and matchmaker. And he’s just finished writing the great American novel, written long-hand on notebooks and loose leaf over the course of seven years, an opus bound with a string. The kid is full of hope—something that Arthur has long been lacking—and as the relationship between Arthur and Franco grows, Franco’s enthusiasm becomes contagious and ideas start brewing in Arthur’s head about who they can talk to about publishing Franco’s book. He even decides to do something about Randy. Then, his despair, doubt and pessimism get the better of him—and Arthur lashes out at Franco’s youthful industry and optimism.

But when something happens to Franco, Arthur is spurred to action. Confronting Luther and Kevin, with the help of Max and his young relative Kiril (Paul Dods), Superior Donuts becomes the ground for one last fight.

Outstanding work from the cast; each a masterful storyteller as he/she speaks for his/her character. Persichini gives a profoundly moving performance as Arthur, a gentle giant who fled to Canada to evade the draft, returning to take over the family business established by his father the year he was born. Now deeply saddened by the passing of his ex-wife Magda and full of guilt at having lost touch with his daughter Joanie, his life is full of disappointment and regret, leaving him in hopelessness and despair—until Franco enters his life. Rajo is a delightful spark plug as Franco; a mercurial, smart and irreverent young man, there’s more to him than the hip, smart-ass kid he presents. A thoughtful, generous soul, his sense of hope is put to the test. Great chemistry, banter and candor in the Arthur/Franco two-handers.

Leblanc gives a lovely performance as the fragile, bird-like Lady; and the mutual love and care that Lady and Arthur have for each other are evident in some beautifully tender moments between them. Poch-Goldin is hilariously engaging as the blunt Max; he’s a go big or go home kind of guy who says what he thinks—and fiercely loyal. Biccum and Blake make a great pair as the police officer partners Randy and James. Biccum gives Randy some nice, gentle layers beneath the tomboy cop exterior; longing for something beyond her family legacy of sports and being on the job, she likes Arthur a lot but is too shy to go for it. And Blake brings an officer and a gentleman vibe to James; a good sport about the teasing from his friends and colleagues about his love of Star Trek, he’s a genuinely good man, out to serve and protect.

Hollyman brings a great edge of desperation and ruthlessness to Luther; Stewart’s Kevin is classic bad boy from the hood; and Dods is impressive as the ripped Kiril, a newly arrived immigrant with little English and a sweet soul under those abundant muscles.

The power of hope and community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts.

Superior Donuts continues to February 26; drop by the Coal Mine Theatre website for ticket info or purchase tickets directly online. Book in advance for this one folks—it’s an incredible show and an intimate venue with general seating. Please note the 7:30pm curtain time for evening performances; box office opens at 6:45pm.

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