Monday, April 18, 2011

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Portland Playhouse, A+

written by August Wilson
Directed by Kevin Jones

Irvin   .....   Duffy Epstein
Studyvant   .....   Bruce Burkhartsmeier
Levee  .....   Victor Mack
Cutter   .....   Wendell Wright
Slow Drag   .....   Jerry Foster
Toledo   .....   Wrick Jones
Ma Rainey  .....   Julianne Johnson
Dussie Mae   .....   Andrea White
Sylvester    .....   Deion Guice
Policeman   .....   Gavin Hoffman

sez says: Do you remember the song "Blue Suede Shoes"?  You can do anything but don't you step on my blue suede shoes? How important are "those things you walk around in"?   Both as a metaphor and as a concrete symbol of style, shoes are capable of being powerful presenters of much more than protection for your feet.  You might want to think about this on your way to the Playhouse.  

This is a an amazingly perfect play--and this production is near perfect.

Set in  the 1930s, Chicago, and the world of blues music. Ma Rainey has made her way in this world and she has no illusions about how it works.  "They want my voice --they don't care about me" she says and she balks and refuses the best she can to "do it their way" And there is the band, each member as interesting as any other. An amalgam of lives lived inside the constraints of a racist society.  There is Toledo, who spends his free time reading, and who sees the larger picture and rages in frustration at the blindness of this companions. Cutter and Slow Drag find life in their music, the church and with women.  Finally there is Leeve, who wants to be heard and who is alive with creative energy.

Wilson puts his characters --and especially Levee --in a pressure cooker of a world: one that gives little opening for creative energy to find a home -- a world where talent is thwarted and exploited and violated.  This is a place where any straw might break a camels back. That these characters carry the loads they do --that they have found ways to cope in good humor--finding joy where they can and defining for themselves what is important make them all heroes of a sort.  But then there is Levee, we learn he copes better than anyone might imagine a person could cope, given his history --and still he is driven to make his music heard. That he will be robbed seems likely--and he knows that is the likelihood as well as the audience. 

And what a cast has been assembled here for this presentation! We find we have an abundance of talent that really ought to be seen more often in Portland's theaters.

MJC Says -- this is theater as it should be--brilliant play engaging and moving at the same time

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