Review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Clayton Community Theatre

    I rejoice that the natural order has been restored. We are again seeing plays performed by a cast of real live people for an audience of real live people. To double the joy, Clayton Community Theatre is performing a play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. 

    Wilson is a poet of the theatre. His language delights. As the actor J. Samuel Davis, who has played them both, has said, speaking Wilson is much like speaking Shakespeare. The rhythm carries you along.

    Wilson likes to have his characters tell stories, often about their lives, lives and stories that define the African-American experience. I was reminded again in this production that the stories almost always function dramatically, responding in attack or defense to another character. The story-telling is dramatic, and the drama is in the story-telling.

    Under director Nada Vaughn, the cast at Clayton does Wilson full justice. Maureen L. (Hughes) Williams gives us a well realized Ma Rainey, the Mother of the Blues, at a recording session in a Chicago studio in 1927, at the height of her fame and influence. Williams can sing, and her Ma is too hot to handle. She’s late for the session because of an encounter with a policeman (white) who has threatened to take her to jail because of a traffic incident with her driver, her nephew Sylvester. As usual, Ma’s agent Irvin (white) smooths things out with the help of a handful of bills handed to the Chicago cop. Irvin performs the same function between Ma and the studio’s owner and producer Sturdyvant. He’s irritated and impatient with her tardiness and delays, she threatens to walk out if she doesn’t have her contractual  Coca-Colas and if her stuttering nephew doesn’t record the introduction to her “Black Bottom” song. More delays. Aahron Young’s nephew Sylvester, poor boy, is barely there. Big Robert (Bob) Joseph Tierney’s cop is very much there as he negotiates his gratuity with Irvin. Mark Lull’s Irvin frequently comes near to tearing his hair out as he tamps down one little flare-up after another, a virtuoso performance of the perfect mediator. Aaron Mermelstein’s Sturdyvant the producer (white) struggles to avoid blowing his top and alienating his star and money-maker.

    We get to know the members of Ma Rainey’s band as they wait for her to arrive. Chris Moore’s Cutler leads the band, plays trombone and guitar, and tries to maintain control of the young trumpet player Levee, who has his own ideas about how music should be played. Jeremy Thomas electrifies the role as we wait for the explosion. I admired his slicked-down wavy hair style, very much of the period, as were all Jean Heckmann’s costume choices. Jonathan Garland is the piano-player Toledo, intelligent, well-read, articulate. DeRod Jodan’s Slow Drag plays the upright bass and adds his own unique style when he grabs a chance to dance. 

    Completing the splendid cast is Ma Rainey’s current girlfriend Dussie Mae, the young, tall, slender and seductive Calysta Yalew, quite ready to slip into Levee’s lap when the opportunity presents itself.

    Musical Director Gene Rauscher arranged and recorded the music, and the band members did an impressive job of appearing to play it. Zac Cary designed the studio with its large window into the control room and an adjoining lounge, all lighted by Nathan Schroeder. Props MasterJackie Aumer found all the needed period props, and director Vaughan designed the sound.

    Thanks, Clayton Community Theatre, for a very satisfying evening of real live theatre once again.

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by John Lamb