This past weekend the UW Department of Theatre and Drama tackled the difficult topics of racism, exploitation and cultural interdependence in their production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
The play, set in the 1920s, follows “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey and her posse, including her manager, producer, four band members, nephew and lover throughout a recording session with disastrous implications.
The play starts out with light-hearted banter between friends, but as it progresses, the heavy issues of racism, self-hatred and exploitation make an appearance. The play provides the audience with insight into the community of people that are continually exploited and oppressed, but strengthened in solidarity.
The band members quarrel as ideologies and ideas of how the black man should or should not relate to the white man clash and breed resentment between the characters.
The conflict between differing ideas comes to a head as, in a fit of displaced racial rage, one band member stabs another because he stepped on his new shoes.
The group’s portrayal of this disastrous moment was so captivating I thought all the air was gone out of the theater as the audience collectively took a sharp intake of breath in surprise and unhappiness at the turn of events.
Considering these dark themes and plot twists, I was surprised by the overt humor of the characters throughout the play. However, after thinking about its use for a while, humor makes absolute sense. People use humor as a deflection and defense mechanism when covering difficult topics. Its surprising use in the play is a testament to August Wilson’s ability to create real and authentic characters who successfully show the pain and spirit of oppressed peoples.
LaVar J. Charleston and Tory Latham, playing the parts of two band members Slow Drag and Cutler, made their theatrical debut Friday night, the former making a note-worthy entrance to the theatrical community. Charleston’s humorous and easy on-stage presence made it seem as if he was a veteran of the stage.
Trevon Jackson played Levee, a reckless and troubled trumpet player who causes most of the conflict and supplies plenty of the angst throughout the play. Jackson was phenomenal in this role. His humor was condescending and sharp and his anger was palpable. His furious speech chastising the other’s jokes about his obedience to the white man that happens right at the end of act one gave me chills.
Alfred Wilson, a member of the Actor’s Equity Association, made an appearance as Toledo, the oldest and wisest band member who comes to an unfortunate end by Levee’s hand. Alfred has worked with the writer of the play, August Wilson, and brought a special kind of experience to the production.
August Wilson (1945-2005) is a self-taught, high school drop-out who ended up earning 12 awards and six nominations during his life for his extraordinary plays. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” won the 1985 Tony award for Best Play.
Besides the normal sundries of an opening night performance and the slightly obvious nervousness of the new-comers to the stage, the production was a huge success. The strong and conflicting emotions that the actors successfully portrayed created a show that would cause anyone to leave pondering the deadly implications of racism and cultural exploitation.