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 ABCs of cut-throat real estate in the darkly funny, testosterone-fuelled Glengarry Glen Ross

Derek Perks, Chris Coculuzzi & Frank De Francesco in Glengarry Glen Ross—photo by David Fitzpatrick

 

Amicus Productions wraps its 2016-17 season with its production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Harvey Levkoe; and opening last night at the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills.

Set in Chicago in the 1980s, Glengarry Glen Ross still resonates today with its condemnation of American business and the testosterone-filled culture that runs it. In a world where you eat what you kill, men are driven to desperate measures to survive, and thrive in a twisted hierarchy of “real men” and competition for big-ticket prizes.

The story opens at the local Chinese restaurant, where we get a lay of the land and a taste of its inhabitants. Veteran salesman Shelly “The Machine” Levine (Daryn DeWalt) has been in a serious slump and makes a desperate plea to office manager John Williamson (Chris Coculuzzi) to get some prime leads. The outraged Dave Moss (Neil Hicks) vents to his side-kick co-worker George Aaronow (Jerrold Karch), hatching a plan to take the good leads by force and put them to use for their own benefit. And the slick Richard Roma (Derek Perks) spots a mark in the shy, unassuming James Lingk (Abbas Hussain).

With Act Two opening on their pillaged office, Detective Baylen (Frank De Francesco) has taken up residence, interviewing each man one by one. Shelly seems to have emerged from his slump – and big time. And Roma is celebrating record sales, earning him a car. That all changes when a sheepish James arrives, putting that deal in jeopardy. Loyalties are tested and stand-offs get ferocious as things go to hell, and we get closer to discovering who broke in and stole the leads.

Nice work from the entire cast in this intense, hot-tempered and darkly funny Mamet classic. Stand-outs include DeWalt, who finds a great balance between flop-sweat desperation and cocky showmanship as Shelly Levine; it’s a roller coaster of extreme highs and lows as Shelly fights for his livelihood, vacillating between winning and losing. Perks is a charming scoundrel as Roma; a suave and seductive player, and a sharp marksman, Roma is nevertheless a thoughtful philosopher and a loyal guy—crediting Levine as his mentor. Just don’t get on his bad side.

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Neil Hicks, Daryn DeWalt & Derek Perks in Glengarry Glen Ross—photo by David Fitzpatrick

Coculuzzi gives us an icy, detached Williamson, who’s a bit of a cypher; the company ‘Yes man,’ Williamson’s a classic case of management who knows zero about the work he’s managing—and who deeply enjoys the withholding and proffering of power. And Karch gives a compellingly understated and comic performance as George Aaronow; a quiet, sweet guy, Aaronow may have been duped by Moss, but he knows how to look after himself.

Lie, cheat, steal. The ABCs of cut-throat real estate in the darkly funny, testosterone-fuelled Glengarry Glen Ross.

Glengarry Glen Ross continues at the Papermill Theatre until May 6; check here for ticket purchase/info or call 416-860-6176.

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