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.”

rainey-3
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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Teige Reid & Darryl Purvis take us to the Church of the Perpetual LOLs in the Teige & Darryl Do A Show Together Show

 

Last night, a sizeable crowd gathered up in the Studio at Alumnae Theatre for a one night only evening of laughs and celebration for the Teige and Darryl Do A Show Together Show. Featuring Teige Reid and Darryl Purvis, plus a surprise guest, the celebration part was about Purvis’s 20th anniversary as a stand-up comic.

First up was Purvis with an edgy, hilarious stand-up set that ranged from the personal to the observational. Cheeky, irreverent and sometimes adult (and by that, I mean dirty), topics covered social interaction, autobiography and bizarre, eye-opening experiences. Keeping us laughing as he recorded the set for posterity, we rolled along with bit after bit: extreme social awkwardness meets faux pas in an unfortunate elevator moment; an unusual reception from an American; and a surprisingly disturbing visit to an Alberta strip club in Red Deer—to name just a few.

Purvis’s underlying vibe of awkwardly shy, beer loving introvert translates well into some sharply delivered self-deprecating humour and storytelling. With a twinkle in his eye the whole time, he plays on the edge of shock and ‘aw, shucks’—and delivers it with an engaging east coast kitchen party flavour (or maybe that’s because, like Purvis, I spend more time at Reid’s kitchen table than I do my own).

After a brief intermission, it was Reid’s turn; showcasing bits from his solo shows, including In Vino Veritas, and a surprise guest appearance. Philosophy, religion and politics emerge in a blend of social satire, scathing political commentary and whip-smart insight. From the snake-like Southern minister preaching salvation with a gambling angle, to the darkly funny Church of the Gun’s take on The Three Little Pigs, to the drunken wisdom of Rory MacFadden and his philosophy of transcendental intoxication, Reid has us laughing, thinking—and sticking it to the likes of Trump, the NRA and sociopolitical dumbassery in general.

A sharply tuned wordsmith, entertainer and social agitator, Reid is a mercurial and cerebral performer with a bang-on sense of comic timing, a dark edge and a great sense of fun. Julian Sark joined Reid for a hysterically quirky two-hander to close the set. Was Cletus afflicted by the delayed effects of puberty or Lycanthropy? In any event, you’ve definitely never seen a silver bullet cure like this one.

Teige Reid and Darryl Purvis take us to the Church of the Perpetual LOLs with sharp, observational stand-up and storytelling in Teige and Darryl Do A Show Together Show. This was one night only, but keep an eye out for Reid and Purvis performing around the city.

The sublime & ridiculous meet the divine & profane in Be Always Drunken (In Vino Veritas)

teige-reid-as-rory
Teige Reid, as Rory MacFadden, in Be Always Drunken (In Vino Veritas)

Be always drunken.
Nothing else matters:
that is the only question.
If you would not feel
the horrible burden of Time
weighing on your shoulders
and crushing you to the earth,
be drunken continually.
Drunken with what?
With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will.
But be drunken… – Charles Baudelaire

So opens Pubcrawl Theatre’s Be Always Drunken (In Vino Veritas), created and performed by Teige Reid, who recently performed the solo, multi-character show at the Social Capital Theatre for one performance only last night.

Confessional. Absurd. Poignant. Hilariously irreverent. Bartender Seamus is our host at the Empty Glass pub, and Reid weaves his way through several denizens of the tired old place. Reid is a master of character, dialect and storytelling – and for those of you who haven’t yet met Rory MacFadden, you’re in for a— Well, you’re in for it. I had the pleasure of interviewing both Reid and MacFadden for the blog last year.

This was my third time seeing Be Always Drunken; I’d seen Reid perform the show in 2012 and 2013 at The Fox & Fiddle Wellesley – and I see something new every time. A nuance, an inflection, a gesture – and there’s a lovely bit at the end that shifts into improv. There’s not really much more I can say – check out the links to my previous posts on the show.

The sublime and the ridiculous meet the divine and profane in Teige Reid’s Be Always Drunken (In Vino Veritas). Keep your eyes peeled for the next performance at a pub near you.

In the meantime, check out this Rory rant – this is included in the show – and check out Reid’s YouTube channel while you’re at it:

SummerWorks: Capturing the humanity & quirks of Toronto’s west end in Face Value: West

FaceValueWest-400x300One woman. Six photographs. Limitless possibilities.

Still black and white images of west end Toronto life come alive in a wonderful, collaborative work by actor Tracey Hoyt and photographer Kate Ashby, directed by Melody A. Johnson and Rick Roberts, in Dorothy Mae Productions’ Face Value: West – now running at the Theatre Centre Incubator space as part of SummerWorks.

Brilliantly conceived and performed, with sharply-drawn characters, Hoyt is the orchestra, and Ashby’s west end Toronto photographs are both the sheet music and the conductor. Combining improvisation with personal storytelling, Hoyt responds to each photograph that appears onscreen by acting out the scene and using this as a jumping off point for anecdotes of moments and memories from her own life.

A woman sitting by herself outside the ROM, her back to us, sits across the sidewalk from a solitary man – their postures informing the tone of the characters as the story takes an unexpected, comic turn. A sign taped to the window of a bar, advertising a  karaoke night hosted by Maria creates a multicultural/multilingual cast of characters that incorporates the audience and includes a shy would-be performer who longs to sing “Edelweiss.”

People out on the street, some of them homeless. A shirtless old man sitting on a stoop, cigarette in one hand as he gestures with the other, becomes “The Captain.” A guy and a girl panhandling on the sidewalk, the girl eating an ice cream cone with a dog snoozing under her outstretched legs, becomes a family, each member with very different priorities. A young man with a parrot becomes a licensed street busker. And a scene of a woman and two men sitting side by side on the subway unfolds into moments from a disappointing second date witnessed by a watchful secret admirer. In the end, all six photos appear – and each of these fictional, improvised moments and lives are wrapped up with a final word from the characters.

Funny, poignant and observant – Face Value: West captures the humanity and quirkiness of everyday folks hanging out in Toronto’s west end. All in all, a delight to watch.

Face Value: West continues at the Theatre Centre Incubator until Aug 16 – see the show page for exact dates/times.

Loads of laughs in Siobhán Dungan’s radio play The Receptionist – one night only December 6

ReceptionistHey kids! More big fun coming at a one night only reading of Siobhán Dungan’s radio comedy The Receptionist, where eight actors (including the playwright) play approximately 120 different characters – and I’m one of those actors!

Here’s what playwright/actor Siobhán Dungan’ has to say about this big wacky fun time:

It’s a play

It’s a Radio Play

It’s a Comedic Radio Play

It’s a Christmas-themed, Comedic, Radio Play

It’s based on a true story

I have been working on this play since 1999

It’s finally ready.

The time has come.

I have a venue.

I have 7 wonderful actors and one brilliant musician.

Friday, December 6, 2013

PLEASE come to attend the one-night performance (and recording)

 of

The Receptionist

I promise you will laugh at least 44 times.

The Deets:

8pm (Doors open at 7:30 p.m.)

2 Sussex Avenue (south west of St. George & Bloor)

PWYC (Suggested $10)

Bring 2 or 3 friends for 2 hours of laughter.