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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Raoul Bhaneja & Divine Brown take us to the Church of the Blues in Life, Death and the Blues

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A young boy with a dream – and the harmonica is his ticket.

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM), in association with Hope and Hell Theatre Co., opened Raoul Bhaneja’s Life, Death and the Blues in the TPM mainspace last night – and wowed a packed house.

Directed by Eda Holmes and associate director Kate Lynch, Life, Death and the Blues is a journey of music, culture, history and personal discovery. Bhaneja, Divine Brown, and The Big Time band members Jake Chisholm (guitar), Tom Bona (drums), Chris Banks (upright bass) take us on a trip through time and space, across Blues – and personal – history, traversing cities, countries and continents as Bhaneja continues his Blues education.

While Bhaneja challenges the audience’s preconceived notions of who and what a Blues man is, Brown is the perfect Devil’s advocate for Bhaneja’s assumptions on the cultural significance and place of the Blues today. Throughout this theatrical/music hybrid journey, Bhaneja gets schooled on the true meaning and placement of the Blues. More than a technique or a style or an expression – Blues is about roots and about rooting yourself in the music.

Life, Death and the Blues features stellar performances for this ride. Bhaneja is highly engaging, a slightly cocky but extremely likeable and funny guide on this trip, not to mention a talented showman, bringing it with strong vocals and musicianship (dobro and harmonica). Divine Brown is a fabulous foil, standing for no nonsense from Bhaneja, and taking us to heaven with her incredible vocal range and power. And those Big Time boys were cookin’. In addition to the live performances, we were also treated to the sights and sounds of some Blues greats, including Paul Oscher, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and Bad News Brown. I dare you to not be bopping your head and tapping your feet – and even shouting out “Damn!” – during this show (I know I did).

Every performance of Life, Death and the Blues will feature a special finale: an interview and jam session with a living Blues legend, including Chris Whiteley, Jay Douglas, Paul James, Rita Chiarelli and others. Last night’s opening featured the cool sounds of Chris Whiteley & Diana Braithwaite.

TPM also launched a Youth Blues Challenge in conjunction with this production, and sought out some talented young blues artists (25 or under) to perform during intermission up in the cabaret space near the bar. Last night’s young guest was Dov Beck-Levine, who wowed the audience with a solo performance on guitar and vocals.

Life, Death and the Blues is a remarkable theatre/music hybrid, featuring an outstanding cast of actor/musicians – taking us to the Church of the Blues.

Life, Death and the Blues runs on the TPM mainspace till October 19. Do yourself a solid and get yourself over there to see this. You can purchase advance tickets online.

In the meantime, check out the promo vid:

Good times & great sounds @ NSAI Toronto Tin Pan North songwriter round robin

I was out at the Black Swan Tavern last night for the early round robin set of singer/songwriters, part of NSAI Toronto’s annual Tin Pan North music fest – featuring headliner Wendell Ferguson, with Tori Hathaway, Shaun Devlin and John Cheesman.

Host Jennifer Noble, a singer/songwriter herself, introduced the songwriters and off we went on a round robin of good country sounds. Hathaway (who is 15 years old) has been busy travelling and recording, and treated us to one of the songs she’s been working on in the studio: “I’m Ready,” a sweet, poppy song about new love. Devlin’s warm, folksy storytelling style paints pictures of relationships and places – my favourite is of a couple who play bars together and are still so much in love after all these years. Cheesman has a passionate, blues-infused sound – and “I’m Not Superman,” his heartfelt ballad about a friend coming to terms with his three-year-old son’s diabetes diagnosis, brought tears to my eyes. Ferguson’s songs combine outstanding musicianship with hilarious lyrics – mostly memorably, one song warning women against marrying a musician.

It was a great night of music, storytelling and friends – the upstairs bar at Black Swan feeling more like a kitchen party as each songwriter showcased his/her work. Here are some snaps I took last night:

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Tin Pan North continues today (May 24) – check out their schedule for the final day of music festivities, then get out there and support the artists.

An eclectic, trippy journey through sound on Robert Graham’s “Storm in a Teacup” CD

Storm in a Teacup coverWhen I dropped by Red Sandcastle Theatre for the In Loo Of fundraiser a few weeks ago, owner/manager/AD Rosemary Doyle introduced me to Robert Graham, who was there to accompany singers on piano for the four-day open mic event. While chatting with Graham, I learned that he’s also a singer/songwriter – and I headed home that evening with a copy of his Storm in a Teacup CD.

Co-produced by Graham and Chris Brown, Storm in a Teacup is a trippy, eclectic collection of pop, rock and blues – with hints of jazz and soul – accompanied by some stand-out musicians and vocalists, including Graham, Brown, Anton Fier, Andy Love, Teddy Kumpel, Rob Jost, Tony Scherr, Alec Barken, Dan Charbonneau, Eli Abrams, John Abrams, Ford Pier, Eric Schenkman, Kerryn Graham and Leann Cunningham.

Storm in a Teacup starts out with the gentle, unassuming instrumental track “Blue Lullaby (Intro.),” slips into pop ballad “Reaching You” and finishes with a soul vibe on “Set it Free (Afro-Astro Mix),” a remix of earlier mellow pop track “Set it Free.” From the epic rock-operatic “Living in a Coma” to the comic tale of unrequited love in “In Love with a Girl” to the haunting jazz/blues-infused piano instrumental “Second Prelude,” there’s a big range of emotional and musical expression on this record. And “Jonathan Baker” combines the whimsical poignancy of Beatles storytelling with the dark social commentary of The Police’s “Synchronicity II” – a quiet life of desperation about to explode in the face of a cruel world. The lyric “It’s easy to be nasty. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to be nice” is particularly potent. Storm in a Teacup is a trippy journey through genres and musical moments, each song a brand new vibe. Check it out.

You can catch Robert Graham, playing with his new band The Fairest and the Best at The Central on Monday, May 13 at 7 p.m. And on Friday, May 24, he’ll be hosting Robert Graham and Friends – A Fundraising Concert for the “We Are Jose” Campaign – 7:30 p.m. at Lower Ossington Theatre. For details on these two shows, please visit the Gigs page on Graham’s website.

Robert Tanglefoot photo
Robert Graham

In the meantime, you can also pay him a visit on his YouTube channel and check out his new single “Believe In Love.

Big love & a joyful noise @ Tania Joy “I’ll Be Around” CD launch

The Melody Bar at the Gladstone Hotel was packed last night, all in celebration of the release of Tania Joy’s EP I’ll Be Around. And what a celebration it was!

MC Shannon Paterson, a long-time friend of of Tania Joy’s – from their days as six-year-old figure skating pals to modern-day wing men in the dating scene – ushered the evening’s festivities, including opening acts Arlene Paculan and Candice Sand.

Arlene Paculan got things going with some R&B and pop goodness – a set of originals and covers, on keys with Mickey Rodriguez on drums.  From the slow groove of “My Plea” to her love song to Tony Stark and awesome Green Day mash-up to “Running” – a soulful ballad with a sometimes haunting piano arrangement (and a personal fave) – it’s always a pleasure to wrap my ears around Paculan’s sounds. Coming up for Paculan: the Beaches Jazz Festival, the release of her debut full-length CD Everything Begins with Love (June 21 @ Gallery 345, Toronto) and WonderFest West (August 14 @ Celebration Square, Mississauga). Drop by her website for details and keep an eye out for her upcoming gigs.

Candice Sand showed us she’s got this, bringing it with a bluesy acoustic set, with Neil Whitford backing her up on guitar. Shifting from cheeky fun on a cover of Ingrid Michaelson’s “The Way I Am,” then a couple of songs later into the slow, sexy “Maybe I’m Crazy” and the soulful, strong groovin’ yet vulnerable “I Got This” (her recent release) to audience participation like on her slow groove cover of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” it was a pleasure to see Sand perform live (I’d missed her set at a WonderFest event a while back). Definitely an artist to watch out for.

The main event, Tania Joy, took to the stage with a full band backing her: “The Groove Doctor” (Dave McMorrow) on keys, Rick Joudrey on bass, Jeff Haynes on guitar, Richard Greenspoon on drums (he also engineered the record), and the lovely and talented Arlene Paculan and Candice Sand on back-up vocals.

Opening with “I Push You Pull,” an R&B-infused ballad, with the organ/keys and back-up vocal arrangements bringing some gospel Tania Joy delivered a set of originals from her I’ll Be Around EP, peppered with some covers of songs by the likes of John Fogerty and The Allman Brothers. Singing of connections and relationship, with a mix of folk, blues and gospel on “Gypsy Heart (Back To Me)” and taking us to the church of the joyful noise on “Shine Your Light,” this is a deep, rich and resonant voice singing catchy and soulful lyrics. The moving R&B/gospel sound returned on “I’ll Be Around” and “I Won’t Quit,” the title track inspired by and dedicated to the memory of her cousin Dana Rene Gibson. Bee Gees cover “To Love Somebody” had folks singing along (I was one of them, on harmony) and the reggae rhythm of original “New Ending” got folks up dancing in front of the stage. And the whole room was feeling Tania Joy’s cover of “People Get Ready.”

Tania Joy’s warmth and enthusiasm is contagious – and was matched by that coming from the audience. Friends, family, fellow singers and musicians brought a whole lotta love and support – the room was vibrating with excitement and positive energy. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for this talented lady. In the meantime, drop on by Tania Joy’s Soundcloud and YouTube pages.

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Arlene Paculan, with Mickey Rodriguez on drums.
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Arlene Paculan opens for Tania Joy at the “I’ll Be Around” EP launch.
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Candice Sand, with Neil Whitford on guitar.
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Candice Sand at Tania Joy’s “I’ll Be Around” EP release.
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Tania Joy (right), with Candice Sand (left) and Arlene Paculan (centre) on back-up vocals.
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Tania Joy on guitar at her “I’ll Be Around” EP launch.
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Tania Joy brings it powerful and soulful at her EP launch.
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Tania Joy and event MC Shannon Paterson.
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The energized, enthusiastic crowd kept Tania Joy busy with autograph requests after the show.