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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A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in delightful It’s A Wonderful Life

Soulpepper added an extra bit of cheer to its holiday programming this year with its production of Philip Grecian’s adaptation of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, directed by Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz, assisted by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, and opening to a packed house at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre last night.

Set as a 1940s radio play performed on stage—with the actors playing actors playing characters in the story—this version of It’s A Wonderful Life gives us all the favourite moments of the film version, including the dialogue, with the added fun of a behind-the-scenes look at some fabulous Foley (sound effects) work, designed by John Gzowski. And last night, we had the added treat of a charming performance of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” from the Dixon Hall Music School children’s choir.

George Bailey (Gregory Prest) has spent his entire life helping others in his small town. As a kid (Richie Lawrence) he saved his kid brother Harry (Christef Desir) and after school employer, pharmacist Mr. Gower (Diego Matamoros). And as an adult, he sacrificed college and travel to save the family building and loan business from falling into the hands of the corrupt and wealthy Mr. Potter (Matamoros). All so the hard-working, struggling folks of Bedford Falls could have a fair chance at a decent home.

Challenges aside, he’s got a pretty good life, with a lovely, supportive wife Mary (Raquel Duffy) and four sweet kids (Daniel Mousseau, Thea Lapham, Michelle Monteith and Richie Lawrence). Until one Christmas Eve Day, a banking mistake made by his absent-minded uncle Billy (William Webster) threatens to cost him everything. And in his most desperate hour, his guardian angel Clarence (Oliver Dennis) appears and sets out to show him what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.

It's a Wonderful Life, Soulpepper
Oliver Dennis & Derek Boyes – all photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

This production truly captures the spirit of this beloved holiday classic, and then some. In true radio broadcast style, the show features live commercial spots shouting out Soulpepper’s corporate sponsors and other holiday program offering, with live piano accompaniment (James Smith of Chasse-Galerie). But the biggest fun of all has to be the Foley artistry, featuring Christef Desir, Daniel Mousseau and Marcel Stewart as the soundmen (operating a neat assortment of sound-making props and gadgets, and playing multiple characters as well); with the entire ensemble creating various sound effects vocally. And at the end of Act I, aptly staged during George and Mary’s honeymoon scene, the stage goes to black as the scene continues, with lights on the vintage radio down stage left—giving us a taste of the radio drama experience.

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Christef Desir & Michelle Fisk, with Marcel Stewart & Ellie Moon in the background

Exceptional work from this cast. Stand-outs include Prest, who brings a good-natured authenticity to George Bailey, an everyman performing everyday acts of heroism; there’s really nice chemistry with Duffy’s Mary, George’s warm but feisty perfect match. Matamoros delivers some delicious voice work, from the velvet smooth tones of the announcer, to the gravel-voiced Mr. Gower, to the malevolent, grasping villain Mr. Potter. And Dennis is adorably quaint as the underdog Angel Second Class Clarence, determined to earn his wings.

Monteith brings some great vocal chops and range, going from the slinky town party girl Violet, to the too cute for words Zuzu (George’s youngest daughter, famous for Zuzu’s petals); and Mousseau is a delight as Martini, the owner of one of the town’s favourite restaurants. And shouts to kid actors Lapham (Young Mary and George’s daughter Janie) and Lawrence (Young George and George’s son Tommy).

A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in Soulpepper’s delightful 1940s radio play production of It’s A Wonderful Life.

It’s A Wonderful Life continues the Bluma Appel Theatre—and, good news, it’s been extended to December 31. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the behind-the-scenes video for a peek at the fun in store:

And while you’re at it, check out some of Soulpepper’s other holiday treats, including its annual production of A Christmas Carol and the Family Festival programming. Here’s hoping that It’s A Wonderful Life becomes an additional holiday tradition at Soulpepper.