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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Grotesquely beautiful and darkly comic tragedy – Alumnae’s Antigone is a work of art

In the semi-darkness, a masked, covered figure lies centre stage, surrounded by three ropes that hang from the ceiling. Sleeping or dead? The house lights go down and there’s movement from the front of house entrance as a procession of masked figures enters, each bearing a death mask mounted on a bamboo pike. Their voices rise in a wordless, melodic, wailing music that evokes the sounds of ancient mourning. A people torn apart by war. Living with unspeakable loss.

And so the stage is set for the Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Antigone (Anouilh), directed by Janet Kish.

Amanda Cordner (Chorus) and the ensemble in Antigone
Amanda Cordner (Chorus) and the ensemble

Enter the Chorus (Amanda Cordner), our narrator and guide to this world. We are in a nowhere land of here, there, then and now – out of time and place, in a parallel universe where ancient Greece meets WWII Paris. And the lighting on the three ropes gives the space a three-ringed gallows appearance – and the Chorus, dressed in tails, is the Ringmaster.

In a country recovering from a civil war between Oedipus’s two sons, who once shared the throne but are now both dead at each other’s hand, Oedipus’s brother Creon (Scott Moore) is now king, a tyrant who has buried one nephew with honours and left the other’s corpse to rot in the sun and be devoured by animals. By royal decree, anyone who attempts to bury the corpse will be put to death. Creon’s niece Antigone (Kaya Bucholc) defies her uncle’s order and buries her brother, leaving Creon with a difficult choice: cover up her actions or put her to death. Antigone will do what’s right no matter what – and will do it over and over again. Creon’s response has devastating ripples – and it was all preventable.

Antigone (Kaya Bucholc) held by Guard (Eric Mrakovcic) as Guards (Renee Awotwi & Patrick Fowler) look on
Antigone (Kaya Bucholc) held by Guard (Eric Mrakovcic) as Guards (Renee Awotwi & Patrick Fowler) look on

Kish has an outstanding cast for this tragic tale of right versus might. Cordner is wryly comical and sharply, at times brutally, observant as the Chorus; Marlene Dietrich meets cabaret emcee in tails, black pants, black bra and a fascinator. A laser-focused and dispassionate host, she bridges our world with that of the play. Bucholc gives a moving and compelling performance as the doomed heroine. Rough and tumble, unapologetically conscientious, brave and defiant; she seeks no permission and asks no forgiveness – but struggles with her protective feelings for her sister Ismene (Carly Telford) and lover Haemon (Christopher Oszwald), in great pain over how the consequences of her actions will hurt them. Moore gives a nicely balanced performance as Creon, Antigone’s conflicted uncle tyrant/protector who leads with a cruel pragmatism and punitive, controlling hand. The debate scene between Antigone and Creon is particularly gripping; and Creon is ultimately stung by Antigone’s assertion that he is a prisoner king – not free by virtue of the choices he refuses to make, all in fear of losing control over his kingdom.

Haemon (Christopher Oszwald) pleads with Creon (Scott Moore)
Haemon (Christopher Oszwald) pleads with Creon (Scott Moore)

Really nice work from Oszwald as the passionate, playful and loyal Haemon; and Telford’s Ismene gives a sweet, wide-eyed quality to the favoured, entitled “good sister.” Martha Breen’s Eurydice, while largely a silent figure, is ever watchful as she knits with her blood red yarn – and her cry at the news of her son’s death would break the stones. Silent too is Christina Leonard’s page, a young boy who serves Creon well, but who registers the anxiety and oppression of a kingdom struggling to rise up from the ashes of war under an iron thumb.

Great comic relief from Sara Stahmer, as Antigone and Ismene’s doting, old-school and gently scolding Nurse. And from the Guards (Eric Mrakovcic, Renee Awotwi and Patrick Fowler), salt of the earth everymen who have no use for politics, and just want to keep their well-paying jobs so they can feed their families. Mrakovcic has a nice moment of empathy with Antigone as he guards her cell; and Awotwi is hilarious as she echoes Mrakovcic’s report of Antigone’s capture and arrest to Creon. Fowler does double duty as the Messenger, dressed as a WWII pilot, who gives a heartbreaking account of Antigone’s and Haemon’s deaths in the tomb meant for Antigone’s punishment and eventual grave.

This production of Antigone features powerful, evocative design, complemented by the play-themed art installation (in the lobby for the duration of the run, by set designer/scenographer Teodoro Dragonieri, assisted by scenic artist Sara Ahmadieh Rad); startling lighting design (Kelsey Laine Jacobson); and costume (Martina Christensen) and makeup (Eleanor MacVeigh) that aptly bring elements of time and place together to create this universe. The movement choreography (Jane Deluzio, in collaboration with the ensemble) and sound design/composition (Jeffrey Jones) are organic and visceral, hearkening back to the ancients while rooted in the present.

A grotesquely beautiful and darkly comic tragedy, Alumnae Theatre’s production of Antigone is a work of art. Get yourselves out there to see this.

Antigone runs on the Alumnae mainstage until Oct 3; click here for details and tickets. Some special performances to note: Social Media Night (Sat, Sept 19) – texting, tweeting and messaging in the last three rows; no flash photography, please. There will be a pre-matinée panel discussion (Sun, Sept 20 – noon to 1 p.m.), Women of Courage, with six “ordinary women who have exhibited extraordinary courage in our current day and age”: Rachel Lauren Clarke, Tasvinder Gill, Tessa Hill, Andrea Patreau, Lia Valente and Meagan Tuck Yaksich.

With production photos by Bruce Peters.

p.s. Almost forgot to mention some minor pre-show drama when the fire alarm went off around 10-15 minutes before show time; likely set off by the fog machine. Thanks to the Alumnae peeps who ushered us outdoors and to the firefighters who arrived to ensure that all was well.