Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Taper

Gordon and I went to Kendall’s for soup and wine last night before the show at the Music Center. Management liberated the remote! Chris, the bartender, asked if we wanted to play Jeopardy and I said, “Sure, but can you get the remote away from the Overlords?” He had it! Hey Chrissy! So we played Jeopardy. And we enjoyed our wine, the soup was hot, and we didn’t have to beg for bread. I also didn’t see any of the previous management. Maybe I wasn’t the only one having trouble. Don’t know if they’ve been replaced or just taking the night off. Don’t care. I just know I appreciated my soup…for a change.

I’d never seen Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom before. It’s one of the earlier plays in the August Wilson cycle. I read the notes in the program and the review in the LA Times; I didn’t take away the things they did. In the notes the actress playing Ma Rainey (Lillias White) says that she respected Ma because she didn’t take crap from anyone. She did things her way and demanded respect. Yeah, she did (according to the play) but she was also a bully. The members of the band complain that white people took their music and made money off it. Yeah, they did. And having been a victim of the entertainment industry (in a small way) I understand the frustration. But Ma made money with the white people even though she treats them horribly. She has her manager on his knees trying to get her to sing during the session (studio time costs money, after all). Ma tells everyone, black and white, that they’re there for her and everybody will do things her way in her time. In my opinion, Ma acts like a spoiled diva–or a spoiled 2-year-old. I didn’t find her as admirable as the cast does (although she does try to protect an untalented nephew–at the expense of the rest of the band). Ma doesn’t seem to understand that talent and production need each other. A lot of the play focuses on the band members who discuss abuse they’ve endured at the hands of white people. The story of rapes and murder are horrifying. But are they true or simply folk lore? (“I had this story from the Reverend!” “I know that train; it don’t even stop where you say it does!”) The conclusion I come to is that everybody (black and white) stinks; there’s plenty of blame to go around. Also came to the conclusion that black people spend too much time and energy on past sins of white people and don’t focus on the misery foisted on them by their own community right now. Example: the trumpet player is wounded by the rape of his mother by a gang of white men (understandable) but he’s frustrated that he can’t get his music played. The white record executive pays him a pittance for his songs even though he claims he can’t use them. But Ma fires him because he wants to play the music his way (she’s the star; it’s her way or the highway). So he stabs the piano player for stepping on his toe. Which is stupid. The other band members stare in horror at the murderer and the final line of the play comes from the trombone player who says to call for the manager. And that made me think: What’s the white guy supposed to do with this mess? He didn’t have anything to do with it.

August Wilson is a genius. He makes me question everything. The cast is wonderful, particularly enjoyed White’s singing of Ma’s songs, but the show runs almost three hours. That’s a lot of poetry. I mentioned to Gordon that it might be a nice idea to have an August Wilson festival so I could see the entire cycle in order but that’s over a week’s worth of theater. Awful lot to take in. But it’s a thought.

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About Barbara Schnell

I've dedicated my life to full-time employment avoidance. I've been an actress, renovated a 1921 California Bungalow, set a cash-winning record on $25,000 Pyramid, and came in last on Jeopardy. I live in Los Angeles with my patient husband and two cats.
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