Review by Judith Robinson
Countless obstacles contrive to stop Ma Rainey, the real life mother of soul, played by Alana Bridgewater, from recording her music in Soulpepper’s powerful production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In a 1927 studio in Chicago, Ma is beset with car accidents, racist cabbies, bullying police officers, equipment failures, unfaithful lovers, ambitious underlings, impatient bosses and unfair pay. (While Ma got $200 for her session, Al Jolson would have gotten $10,000.) Though Ma’s spirit is strong, she is on the edge, due to the endless barriers keeping her from getting what she deserves. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Bridgewater captures the essence of Ma Rainey’s indomitable warrior spirit and shows us what it means to be centered and brave. The minute Bridgewater opens her mouth to sing, audience members are on the edges of their seats. This woman has world class talent, as we are lead to believe, so did Ma.
Most of the drama consists of the bantering of Ma’s back up band, who have also faced their fair set of challenges. Lovell Adams-Gray stands out from the pack as Levee, a young trumpet player/songwriter whose horrific past keeps haunting him in flashbacks. He alternates between charm and rage, always on the edge of an explosion. He struggles to push himself forward in flashy clothes, with exceptional improvisations, fanciful conversations and stolen passionate moments. Levee is every bit as talented as Ma, but he lacks her earthy wisdom, experience and stability. Adams-Gray’s performance is gripping, heart-breaking, exhausting and exhilarating. The audience members long to hear more about his story and cheer for him to succeed.
Beau Dixon, the Music Captain, kept the rhythm going as Toledo, with some masterful piano playing, backed up by Lindsay Owen Pierre, as Cutler, on Trombone, and Neville Edwards, as Slow Drag, on Double Bass. Together with Adams-Gray, these men made a dynamic ensemble, with or without the music.
In a few mumbled fragments of conversation, these men convey what it was like to be an African American in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Lounging in a basement rehearsal hall, smoking cigarettes, begging for cash because they can’t cash cheques, complaining that they can’t use regular washrooms, catering to the whites’ whims and struggling to avoid a beating, these four musicians carry a lost generation. August Wilson has captured the essential tragedy of their lost talent, stolen opportunities, endless frustration and senseless suffering. These men, and Ma, embody the blues.
Don’t miss this one. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has been extended at Soulpepper, in Toronto, until June 9th.