Culture Quake

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Penumbra Theatre Company

          PENUMBRA THEATRE CELE-BRATED the beginning of its 20th anniversary season on Saturday, October 5, with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at the Saint Paul Hotel. Renowned playwright and Penumbra company member August Wilson appeared as a special guest, and after the festivities, a shuttle bus delivered patrons from the hotel to a performance of Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Tickets for the benefit cost $150 per head.

          But the real drama of that night's performance would not begin until after the curtain call. As reported in last Friday's Strib, that's when Terry Bellamy, a lead actor in Ma Rainey and the half-brother of Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy, walked out on the production. "Perhaps I don't fit in anymore," Terry Bellamy later told the Strib. "Somewhere along the line, Penumbra's mission has changed. Penumbra's administration needs to get back in touch with what made so many people work to put it where it is." Within a few days, Terry Bellamy had been replaced in the role of Levee by New York actor Russell Andrews.

          The more intriguing part of this brouhaha is not the disagreement itself--champagne, dueling brothers, and canceled shows--but rather the resonance it has with the themes of Ma Rainey. Set in a white-owned Chicago recording studio in 1927, the play captures its characters--"Mother of the Blues" Rainey and her backing band, Levee, Cutler, Slow Drag, and Toledo--in the midst of a culture-quake. At issue between Rainey with her slow-footed "jug" music and Levee, a temperamental, ambitious swing-trumpeter, is the future course of black entertainment in a business-minded, predatory world.

          As part of Wilson's planned ten-part, decade-by-decade serial of the 20th century, Ma Rainey is informed by the historical tensions of the great black migration and the Harlem Renaissance: North vs. South; rural vs. urban; religion vs. nihilism; assimilation vs. Africanism; blues vs. jazz; practical craft vs. "high" art. Though Rainey (an actual historical figure) enjoys star status across the South, she is considered a mere commodity to her white, northern managers. But a prickly commodity indeed. After Rainey threatens to abandon the recording session over a missing bottle of Coca-Cola, she articulates her credo forcefully: "Ma Don't stand for no shit." Reprising the role of Rainey from Penumbra's 1987 production, Edna Duncan succeeds in suggesting the reason behind the recalcitrance while presenting a fairly seamless performance. Meanwhile, Rainey's manager Irvin recites a counter-mantra of his own: "I can handle her." In fact, he can only barely handle this woman who has learned to turn stacked odds to her advantage (and actor Timothy Kuhlmann manifests some difficulty of his own in portraying Irvin as the lesser of caucasian devils).

          W.J.E. Hammer's handsome set trifurcates the stage along class lines. Cheapskate studio owner Sturdyvant lords over the proceedings from behind the glass of an elevated recording booth. Rainey rules the next roost--the studio floor--commandeering the only padded chair on a low platform. The band is relegated to the basement--a bench and a row of lockers. It is here that the majority of Wilson's play unfolds, as Levee and Toledo spar with varying degrees of hostility.

          Levee presents himself as a man unshackled by his racial history; appropriately, then, he begins the play by lacing an $11 pair of slick new Florsheims. While Levee understands music in a chromatic sense, reading and writing the word itself proves more challenging. Toledo, by contrast, is the resident scholar, expounding on the African origins of their American behaviors. (As Toledo, the redoubtable Abdul El Razzac speaks in an uninflected, joy-drained drawl; it is a sure-footed if slightly mannered performance.) The conflict between the two positions--Levee's future without a past and Toledo's home without a home--is the narrative engine for the play.

          One of the things that distinguishes Wilson's prodigious talent is his mastery of the prosody of the black vernacular. Ma Rainey is at once composed of music and about it. Yet in this early play, Wilson sometimes seems a little too determined to stuff his history course into the characters' mouths. This is not helped any by the indelicate direction of Claude Purdy, whose predictable blocking often emphasizes the obvious (e.g. Levee leaping atop a bench, smack downstage center, to dare an invisible god to smite him.)

          As Ma Rainey presents a community at a crossroads, this mostly strong staging might typify Penumbra's own growing pains. While last season's series of new productions frequently disappointed this critic (with the notable exception of the Penumbra-at-the-Guthrie presentation of Big White Fog), this year has been devoted to encore presentations of recent hits. Good for the box office, no doubt. But whether such a seemingly commercially-motivated calendar ultimately reproduces Levee's folly, as the departed Terry Bellamy perhaps feared it may, should prove interesting to watch.

          Ma Rainey's Black Bottom runs through November 24 at Penumbra Theatre; call 224-3180.

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