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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Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

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Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

Powerful, deeply moving & bold investigation into the origins & echoes of the Black diaspora in Esu Crossing the Middle Passage

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d’bi.young anitafrika in Esu Crossing the Middle Passage – photo by John Gundy

How do I describe what I witnessed at the matinee of The Watah Theatre’s production of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Esu Crossing the Middle Passage at Storefront Theatre yesterday?

Written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika, assistant directed by Charmaine Headley and choreographed by BaKari I. Lindsay, with music direction by tuku, and live vocals/music by tuku and Amina Alfred, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage is Part One of The Orisha Trilogy – an epic work examining activism, divinity and the Black diaspora.

Utilizing mask, movement, song, spoken word, storytelling and verbatim theatre – the space transformed into the belly of a ship (Rachel Forbes, set designer), Esu Crossing the Middle Passage takes the audience along on the journey of an African womxn* captured and sold in the Transatlantic slave trade. But she is not alone on that terrifying crossing. The spirit of Esu (pronounced “eh-shoo”), the trickster god of Ifa and keeper of the crossroads, dwells within her.

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Foreground: tuku, with d’bi.young anitafrika & Amina Alfred in the background – photo by John Gundy

Emerging from the horror, tears and death of that ocean crossing – not to mention ongoing mourning for family and home lost and never to be seen again – the stolen Black lives that survive are sold on the auction block in America. While Esu Crossing the Middle Passage is the portion of the trilogy that focuses on the past, it draws parallels to the present-day systemic oppression and discrimination; a system that includes classism, racial profiling/carding, poverty, chauvinism and homophobia. We are reminded of modern-day slavery of the unfair practices seen in domestic help and farm work, precarious work and work that doesn’t pay a living wage.

The vocalizations create a soundscape that evokes not only geography but emotion; it resonates as a mournful lullaby, a story, a people. And the voice-over is the true story as told by Olunike Adeliyi (who will be appearing in the final installment of The Orisha Trilogy) – how she was detained and strip-searched during a border crossing, based on an accusation from a woman she didn’t even know. From the fear and humiliation of the slave ship to that in the airport, the play is a stark reminder that – even in 2016 – passage and policing are still dictated by skin colour, and those with brown or black skin are judged by a different set of rules. It also highlights the multiple layers of privilege (based on skin colour, gender, country of origin, class, sexuality, etc.) that some enjoy and others do not – and why movements like #BlackLivesMatter are so critical and, sadly, necessary.

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From top: Amina Alfred, tuku & d’bi.young anitafrika – photo by John Gundy

For me, the most poignant scene was of a little girl asking her granny questions, and how as her questions grow out from her own little world into the world at large, she discovers some harsh truths – and her happy, care-free innocence turns saddened and anxious. And yet, even out of this scene, there is hope in recalling that spark of divinity within – the divinity that ancestors brought with them across the ocean when it was all they had left. It left me in tears – equal parts sadness and optimism.

The relaxed, informal talkback that followed offered an opportunity for further discovery and closure – done in a space of respect, love, and a desire to share and learn. Audience members shared personal experiences, asked questions, offered comments. We learned that Esu has been demonized in some parts of the world and seen as the devil – part of a colonizing, systemic move to erase indigenous spirituality out of a people, stripping away culture and religion to replace it with European values and Christianity. This play comes with a trigger warning – and the production has a counsellor available on-site for those who need to speak with someone.

A powerful, deeply moving and bold investigation into the origins and echoes of the Black diaspora, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage pays respect to a painful past, with a glint of hope for the future. Esu tells those at the crossroads to choose carefully – and that goes for all of us.

With shouts to the design team: Rachel Forbes (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Waleed Abdulhamid (sound) and Holly Lloyd (costume) for their beautiful, evocative work on this production; and to the extra multitasking stage manager Kathleen Jones and assistant SM Sa/ShOYA Simpson.

Esu Crossing the Middle Passage continues at the Storefront Theatre until April 17; advance tickets are available online. Do yourselves a solid and go see this.

Part Two of The Orisha Trilogy: She, Mami Wata & the Pussy Witch Hunt runs May 4-22 at Theatre Passe Muraille; Part Three Bleeders will run Aug 4-14 (venue tba).

* This spelling of “woman” is the choice of the playwright.