August Wilson’s Ma Rainey rocks the Beck

Those with lachrymose tendencies would bemoan the demise of black playwright August Wilson three years before the election of Barack Obama. They might even liken it to Moses expiring at the gates of the Promised Land.

Don’t be so sure. Like all great writers, Wilson had his own idiosyncratic vision, which didn’t include any PC platitudes or the acceptance of the ideal of the melting pot as a panacea for African-Americans. The “color-blind” casting of plays, for instance, was anathema to Wilson. He would have considered a black Willy Loman an abomination.

The author’s world is centered around two epic historical occurrences: the black man being ripped from his African homeland to be held in bondage in an alien country, and the massive 20th-century black migration out of the American South to the industrial North. Ironically, he shared the same view as his white counterpart William Faulkner concerning the alienation and dissolution of the descendants of slaves in the big northern cities.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom may be the most completely realized component of Wilson’s 10-part play cycle chronicling the African-American experience throughout the last century. Set in a 1920s Chicago recording studio, it’s a compelling glance at the early creation of “race” records. Onstage we have hungry black jazz musicians, a monstrous, charismatic black diva (a fictionalized version of the real Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, 1886-1939), her hangers-on, and the white producer and agent who are willing to respect them to gain a buck. These purveyors of the blues are the ideal embodiments to convey the playwright’s operatic language. In none of Wilson’s other works has his mantra of how the black soul is corrupted by white aspirations and usurpers been so vividly realized.

Twenty-five years after its premiere, Ma Rainey remains a magnificent — dare we say O’Neill-esque — study of corruption from inside and out. Despite its many virtues, the Beck Center production often settles for a bunsen burner where a blow torch is needed. Still, its half-glow is sufficient to illuminate the playwright’s profound achievement. Though director Sarah May has assembled an ensemble physically and emotionally ideal for the demanding roles, she falls short of generating the pressure-cooker intensity required to bring conviction to the work’s violent climax.
With her earthy warmth and steely sass, we can easily see how Angela Gillespie-Winborn’s Ma Rainey could become a star. Her musical panache leaves us hungry for more than the two songs she’s given. As a sinuous bass player, Robert J. Williams, with his ease and irony, comes across as a natural-born Wilson interpreter. Without exception, the remainder of the cast is particularly adept at delivering the rhythm and vocal style essential in bringing credibility to Wilson’s charged universe. It’s a universe that may turn out to be one of the theater’s most enduring gifts of the last quarter of the last century.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Through February 22
Beck Center
17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood