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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Toronto Fringe: Two men reach out for each other in times of division & change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King

Tanisha Taitt directs Minmar Gaslight Productions’ run of Steven Elliott Jackson’s beautifully compelling The Seat Next to the King, winner of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Best New Play contest, now running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Opening in 1964 in a public washroom in Washington, D.C., The Seat Next to the King presents an imagined relationship that develops between two men who work for two of America’s most important political figures of the time.

Bayard Rustin (Kwaku Okyere) and Walter Jenkins (Conor Ling) meet and interact in a beautiful, intricate dance of desire, race, politics and confronting one’s true self unfolds in the push/pull of their initial meeting as strangers, shifting to brief moments of genuine connection and sharing as they get to know each other. Bookended by another washroom meeting years later, we see how their lives have changed—for the world and for themselves.

Lovely, connected work from Okyere and Ling. Okyere’s Bayard is outspoken, frank and charming, with keen, sharp powers of observation; despite being shunned by family and friends, Bayard is out. His choice has cost him, and while he doesn’t appear to regret it, there is profound pain and loneliness beneath his joyful, extrovert manner. Ling goes deep into the layers of Walter’s inner conflict; an introverted man, full of desire and shame, Walter longs for a man’s touch, but can’t bring himself out of his double life. And the chemistry between these two men makes their encounters both beautiful and heartbreaking to witness.

Two men reach out for each other in times of division and change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King.

The Seat Next to the King continues in the TPM Mainspace until July 16. With a standing ovation in a packed house at last night’s 11:30pm performance, advance booking is a must for this one.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan

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Bria McLaughlin & Michelle Chiu in Swan – photos by Cesar Ghisilieri

Finish what you start.

Little Black Afro Theatre joins forces with Filament Incubator for a production of Aaron Jan’s Swan, directed by Jan and dramaturged by Lucy Powis; and opening last night to a packed house in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

As we enter the theatre and settle into our seats, the playing space (Aram Heydarian, who designed the costumes), sound (Kevin Feliciano) and foggy, atmospheric lighting (Samuel Chang) aptly set the tone for this disturbing tale of violence. Three piles of feathers line the apron. Centre stage is a wooden deck-like structure – and above it, a murder of black birds hangs like a menacing Hitchcockian mobile. Underneath the hum of chatting audience members, you can hear the gentle sound of lapping water and birds.

Returning home to Hamilton after a 10-year absence, writer Joey (Bria McLaughlin) is on a mission. Ten years ago, the night of her high school prom, an injured swan was brutally killed and dismembered at Cootes Paradise (a wetland on the west side of Hamilton Harbour), and the perpetrator was never found. She and a group of friends had tried to solve the mystery back then, but came up empty and gave up.

Despite her older sister Bill’s (Michelle Chiu) skepticism, Joey gets the gang back together in an awkward sort of reunion. Once a tight group of lesbian friends, they formed an environmental group at their now decommissioned, abandonned school in an effort to affect positive change in their city: Rachel (Isabel Kanaan), Piper (Christine Nguyen) and Ron (Angela Sun). The fifth member of the group, Jenna Lynn (Marina Moreira) went missing the night of the prom. And the papers made a bigger deal about the swan.

A horrific trail of clues – photographs of their local hang-outs, each one accompanied by growing numbers of bird carcasses – leads them around the city as they hunt for the swan killer. As they grow weary of their fruitless efforts, suspicion arises. Is the killer among them? Loyalties come into question as memories of some ugly interactions emerge, including Jenna Lynn’s expulsion from the group. All is revealed in the disturbing ending, as mystery turns supernatural.

Excellent work from this cast of women in this spooky, quick-paced tale of otherness and search for the truth. As Joey, McLaughlin is a born leader; an inspiring, determined and cunning negotiator with a lot of smarts and a quick wit, Joey has struggled through her own life-changing injury and has made a modest name for herself as a writer. As Joey’s big sis Bill, Chiu brings a nice combination of cynicism and wariness; Bill thinks Joey and her friends are nuts for trying to solve this case, but she’s also concerned for her sister’s welfare and longs to build a brighter future for what’s left of their family.

Kanaan gives Rachel a great sense of inner conflict; once the class over-achiever, type-A Rachel is in a rut. Ten years after high school, she’s still working as a lifeguard at the local rec centre – and re-opening the case of the murdered swan has sparked her dulled ambition. Nguyen’s Piper is a quirky delight; a lanky athlete with a huge appetite. The peacemaker of the group, she just wants everyone to chill and get along.

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Angela Sun, Isabel Kanaan & Christine Nguyen in Swan

As Ron, Sun is the hasbien of the group, who went on to a traditional, “respectable” heterosexual marriage complete with kids and church activities. Sun gives her some deep tones, though; as we learn that Ron is good at keeping secrets and forgetting things, as well as putting up with some clueless everyday racism – dressed up as cultural interest – from her husband. Moreira’s Jenna Lynn is a lovely combination of bashful and forceful; coming late into the group, it’s Jenna Lynn who takes them in a more effective direction as they comb the community page of the Spec (the Hamilton Spectator) for local problems to solve.

All are outsiders by virtue of their ethnicity, colour and/or sexuality. An all are adrift in lives interupted; seeking identity, and a sense of belonging and purpose. Like the characters in Jan’s Rowing, there’s a feeling of being trapped in a city that doesn’t want them and has nothing for them – even as they struggle to make the best of it and make something of themselves. If they could just solve this mystery, things will turn around for them. And, like it’s sister play Tire Swing, Swan is a dark tale of memory, traumatic experience and mystery.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan.

Swan continues in the TPM Backspace till Nov 13; get your tix online or call 416-504-7529. Please note the 7:30 curtain time for evening performances.

SummerWorks: Debating feminism & privilege in provocative, sharply funny Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife

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Traitorous whore spy? Feminist? Sexually liberated opportunist?

The gloriously notorious Mata Hari gets look through 21st century eyes in Call Me Scotty Production’s premiere of Andrea Scott’s Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife, directed by Andrew Lamb and opening last night in the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of this year’s SummerWorks program.

Shifting back and forth between Mata Hari’s final hours in prison in 1917 and a university course on ‘Women Screwed Over by History’ in 2016, we see the famous erotic performer and accused spy from several points of view, both past and present.

On her last day in prison, Mata Hari’s (Kimwun Perehinec) is introduced to cellmate Hélène (Lisa Karen Cox), a young French-Senegalese woman in for prostitution who has been moved from another cell block. Instructed by Sister Leonide (Paula Wing) to keep Mata Hari occupied, Hélène knows that this section of the prison is for doomed prisoners. During Mata Hari’s final hours before execution, of which she is unaware, a young prison guard (Jeff Lillico) attempts to satisfy his curiosity about his celebrity prisoner as he takes her for a stroll in the prison grounds. After a failed attempt at converting Mata Hari, a professed Hindu, to Catholicism, Sister Leonide has a genuine heart-to-heart chat. In 2016, as university professor Christopher Locke (David Christo) prepares a lecture about Mata Hari, he gets into a heated debate with a black female student (Cox as Karen Sinclair) over the meaning of feminism and how it relates to Mata Hari.

The sharp, darkly funny and thought-provoking script is well-matched by an excellent cast. Perehinec does a lovely job with the resourceful and unapologetic Mata Hari (the stage name chose by Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod); mining the vulnerability, celebrity entitlement, cultural appropriation and buried memories of a woman who change her name and her life, she reveals the abused wife, loving mother and sexually liberated woman behind the stage name. Famous and infamous for her erotic performances, we see a woman who loves sex and longs to be loved; and who will do what she needs to do in order to survive. Cox is an excellent foil and debater, to Mata Hari (as Hélène) and to Locke (as Karen); fearlessly challenging and questioning preconceived notions with intelligence and edgy humour, tempered with a good-natured personality and a strong desire to have a real dialogue about the issues. Christo brings an easy-going, cool vibe to the forward-thinking, self-professed feminist Locke; he’s genuinely interested in women’s and minority rights, but struggles with a modern marriage arrangement that may be working against his interests, as well as present-day, budget and diversity-conscious hiring practices.

Wing is a delight as the feisty and commanding Sister Leonide; wily and worldlier than she appears, she has a kind heart beneath that take-charge exterior, as evidenced in a lovely two-hander scene with Perehinec. Lillico (a late addition to the cast when Christo suffered a cycling accident that impaired his mobility) does an excellent job with the young guard’s conflicting feelings about Mata Hari; both curious about and furious with her, an apparent crush takes a turn as he reveals his own heartache and loss.

No one is as they seem; and each character challenges our biases and preconceived notions of their social roles and life experiences. This is a play that will make you think about, as well as question, what you believe about gender, race, white privilege, inclusion, economics and power.

With shouts to set/costume designer Melanie McNeill for the opulent and exotic touches to an otherwise drab and Spartan prison setting.

Debating feminism, equality and privilege in the provocative, smart, sharply funny Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife.

Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14. Go see #thematahariplay

In the meantime, check out some interviews with playwright Scott by yours truly and this week’s cover story by NOW Magazine’s Glenn Sumi.