‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Vibrates with Joy and Simmering Rage

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Writer’s Theatre vibrates violently with joy and simmering rage. Inspired by the life of the real-life black, queer, mother of the blues Ma Rainey (born Gertrude Pridgett,) August Wilson’s play tells the intimate story of a legend whose star is fading, and along with it, her ability to be seen by the larger world.

Tiffany Renee Johnson (L), Felicia P. Fields in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Michael Brosilow.

The cast is led by an exquisitely stellar Felicia P. Fields who plays the larger-than-life Ma Rainey with defiant gusto. Set in a tiny recording studio, Ma pushes back against producers and changing musical tastes to assert creative control, and maintain some modicum of respect. A fur on her shoulders and flaunting her nothing-but-trouble girlfriend Dussie Mae on her hip (hilariously played by Tiffany Renee Johnson) Ma takes every liberty granted to a creative genius and rarely granted to a Black woman.

This show has two stars; the rambunctious Ma Rainey, and her backup band. Casually bantering while sitting in the rehearsal room waiting for Ma, these men live an entire lifetime, exploring facets of Black male identity with compassion and mirth. David Alan Anderson, Kelvin Roston Jr. and A.C. Smith are the elders, bickering and laughing, able to take the bitter parts of life in stride, leavening it with optimism. Kelvin Roston Jr. gives a show stopping performance as Levee, a proud and fiery young man who has had his faith tested in the cruelest possible way. The interaction between these four is the beating heart of the show, portraying Black male love, mentorship, and camaraderie as a ballast to weather the rough seas of racism.

Thomas J. Cox and Peter Moore strike a sometimes funny, sometimes malicious tension as Sturdyvant and Irving, a pair of “Good Cop/Bad” Cop producers tasked with wrangling one last album from the raucous diva, tolerating her antics until the record is cut and the check has been cashed. As these men are trapped in a tense battle of will with Ma, in the hands of director Ron OJ Parson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom explores the furthest limits of a Black woman leveraging her full agency and taking control of her narrative. The joys of artistic exploration become muted when access is lacking. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom sings the painful blues of artists who find the soul of their art extinguished by exploitation.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs through March 17th at Writers Theatre.

Bias Alert: Co-Founder Katherine O’Keefe edited this piece as Regina Victor (Co-Founder) served as dramaturg on this project.

Felicia P. Fields (Ma Rainey)
David Alan Anderson (Toledo)
Thomas J. Cox (Sturdyvant)
Jalen Gilbert (Sylvester)
Tiffany Renee Johnson (Dussie Mae)
Blake Montgomery (Policeman, u/s Irvin, Sturdyvant)
Peter Moore (Irvin)
Kelvin Roston, Jr. (Levee)
A.C. Smith (Slow Drag)
Alfred H. Wilson (Cutler)
Understudies: Willie B., Jacob Baim, debrah neal, Terence Sims, Darian Tene, and Henri Watkins

August Wilson (Playwright)
Ron OJ Parson (Director)
Todd Rosenthal (Scenic Designer)
Myrna Colley-Lee (Costume Designer)
Jared Gooding (Lighting Designer)
Ray Nardelli (Sound Designer)
Rachel Watson (Properties Master)
Regina Victor (Dramaturg)
Joe Foust (Fight Director)
Sasha Smith (Intimacy Director)
Am’Ber Montgomery (Assistant Director)
Abigail Medrano (Assistant Stage Manager)
Rebecca Pechter* (Production Stage Manager)
Michael Brosilow (Photographer)

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