Message from Montie

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August Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' play is deja vu for 2009

Message from Montie

Shamontiel is the author of two novels: "Change for a Twenty" and "Round Trip." Check her out at

Ma Rainey and band.jpg

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" play, the only play that Wilson created to be set on the South Side of Chicago, is running from Sept. 17-Oct. 18. The press opening was Sunday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m., and there wasn't an empty seat in Hyde Park's Court Theatre, located at 5535 S. Ellis Ave.


"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" play is set in the 1920s and revolves around Ma Rainey and her blues band. According to the press release, the original "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" opened on Broadway on Oct. 11, 1984, received the 1985 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play and Tony Award nominations for Best Play, Best Actor and Best Actress. The play was named for a real-life blues singer named Ma Rainey who recorded music with jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, was nicknamed "The Mother of the Blues," and she was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

While the play and the inspiration for the play are impressive, I can't say "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was. In 1984, I was three years old so obviously I wouldn't have been able to comprehend the play when it originally released. But I think I would've liked this play far more in my elementary or high school years than now. The problem with it was that I've seen and heard this plot far too many times to date--a frustrated band depends on a white record label to sell their music but Ma Rainey (played by Greta Oglesby) is calling the shots behind the scenes. And while it may look like Ma Rainey has more balls and is gutsier than all of the band, the other band members--Slow Drag (played by AC Smith), Toledo (played by Alfred Wilson), Cutler (played by Cedric Young) and Levee (played by James T. Alfred) know that racism is still apparent whenever Ma Rainey tries to catch a cab, when she plays her music to a white audience, and when she and her nephew, Sylvester (played by Kelvin Roston Jr.), were almost arrested.


If you've seen "The Five Heartbeats," "The Temptations" or "Cadillac Records" films, you've seen this play already. You have your angry black men who are tired of segregation and tired of feeling inferior, throwing out "n--ger" as every third word out of their mouths. Then there's the bossy white men who are manipulative enough to get what they want economically without really caring about the lives that the black band members lead. And then there's the naïve groupie in Ma Rainey's "niece," named Dussie Mae (played by Kristy Johnson). I was a little confused by Dussie Mae though because the band kept saying that was her "woman" and Ma Rainey was feeling on her legs and butt unlike any respectable aunt should. I hadn't seen a play that explored lesbianism before, so that was one unique quality.


To be fair, while the play's theme is no different than the films mentioned above, none of those films came out before 1984 so technically, the films copied off of plays like "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."


But another problem I had with this play was there was far too much whining but no end results. The audience was left to make their own interpretation of the ending as well as other problems the band members were having, which isn't bad if the play was really deep. The actors all did a reasonable job at their parts, but not one character stood out to me. I wasn't excited to see anybody hit the stage and even some of the jokes fell flat or were corny (ex. "Can I introduce my red rooster to your brown hen?") Anecdotes dragged on far too long, especially Toledo's words of wisdom.


Once I saw that the play was dragging, I was looking forward to the music to carry it. Unfortunately, it looked like the musicians weren't really playing their instruments so I wasn't even bobbing to the beat of the songs, and the singing wasn't that hot either.


One thing I did think was interesting though was Levee's stubborn opinions on religion. I don't think atheism and agnosticism is explored enough in today's plays, and by me being agnostic, I was immediately intrigued by his views and his back story. But that similarity wasn't enough to save the play for me.


And while I didn't learn anything from the play and wasn't entertained, I did respect and agree with one important message that I believe the play hinted at--if we spend all of our time pointing fingers at what everybody else is doing wrong, when we screw up, it's hard to look back at ourselves.




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TheaterGoer said:

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Dear Montie,

After reading your review, I am shocked by the poor journalism and I am never going to take your reviews seriously because it is clear that you do not frequent the theater. If you are going to comment about characters at least get their names right (That's what they give you the play bill for. Ma Rainey's nephew was Sylvester and he was played with wonderfully by Kelvin Roston). This was not a movie, it's theater you should not compare to such. This is a fantastic work and the show was excellent. Everyone should see this production.

Message from Montie said:


TheaterGoer, I actually do visit the theater and one name correction shouldn't be the deal breaker considering all of the rest of the names were correct. However, I do thank you for correcting me for the character Sylvester's name. Originally I had Sturdyvant, and that has now been changed. If you don't care for my opinion of the play, that's okay by me. It's an opinion.
As far as it not being a movie, that was plainly stated in the review above. I called it a play repeatedly, and even in the line when I compared the movies to the play I stated: "If you've seen "The Five Heartbeats," "The Temptations" or "Cadillac Records" FILMS, you've seen this PLAY already." My point was to talk about how the themes are similar and to say if you've seen the movies mentioned, you've already seen this play. If you read the review in its entirety, you would comprehend that comparison. If you thought it was "a fantastic work and the show was excellent," you have every right to think as you do. But keep in mind that the rest of the world isn't a carbon copy of your opinions. If YOU think "everyone should see this production," then so be it, but I could've passed on it. The guest I was with also didn't enjoy the play.

kjmuhammad said:

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Montie: I have to disagree with your assessment of this play on some levels. I can give you that the first act in particular was slow and dragged, but that is about it. I saw this play just over the weekend and it was really good. From the audience response, I am sure my sentiment is shared.

I think within the context of presenting an August Wilson piece very much in line with how the play was originally written, this ensemble cast nailed it. James T. Alfred breathed life into the very complex Levee character. Greta Oglesby also made you feel the bigger than life bravado of Ma Rainey from the simple way she carried herself and held her hands as she moved about the stage. There was no Hollywood ending to the play, the ending was raw and took the audience to a dead end furthering August Wilson's point that the character's in this play, in particular the musicians, all black men were trapped by circumstance.

Kirsty Johnson played Dussie Mae and it was unclear as to who she was, but never was her character announced as the niece. Ma Rainey only fussed over her stuttering nephew. I think the lesbian twist is comparable to the kiss that Shug Avery gave Celie in the Color Purple. There was a subtleness that I think was part of the time and it was played well.

I can see how you liken the overall plot to The Five Heartbeats or The Temptations, but this is live theatre, and you have to take your hat off to the actors for some of those long monologues. There is also the fact that even in the 1920's musicians got high, from Cutler and Slow Drag sharing marijuana to Ma Rainey requiring 3 bottles of Coke - back then there was actually cocaine in the beverage. And the ultimate ending, when Levee was so frustrated, [EDITOR'S NOTE: Some of this comment has been deleted because it is a spoiler.] There was no therapy to help Levee cope with the shell shock of his life in the 1920's [EDITOR'S NOTE: Some of this comment has been deleted because it's a spoiler]. This all was acted out live on stage and I loved every piece of it.

This is a play with a historical backdrop and it was a job well done by the ensemble cast.

Message from Montie said:


KJ Muhammad, I have no problem whatsoever with you disagreeing with me. A review is just that...a review. I don't expect everyone to agree. However, I did delete a chunk of your comment because for those who haven't seen the play, you added two spoilers. If you glance at the last paragraph, you'll see why/what I deleted. And although I understand what you're saying, there was just nothing surprising or new to me about this ending or the play itself. I'd seen it too many times with too many films. That's exactly why I said I think I'd have liked the play more when I was younger but to be fair, this play came out before all those movies. The actors were cool, but I wasn't moved by them, and the singing was just okay. As far as Ma Rainey calling the girl her "niece," check again. I actually asked another audience member to make sure I heard right after she started feeling her up. Ma Rainey introduced the girl like that to the producers, I believe. She didn't introducte the girl this way to the bandmates though because I'm guessing they knew better. It's been sometime since I saw "Color Purple," but I'm going to take your word on the comparison.
Regardless of it being live theatre, the PLOT was the same. I've seen long monologues in other plays and enjoyed it. Memorizing lines doesn't make me go "Oooh, great play!" Neither does drinking drugs from a bottle or smoking it backstage. I didn't think that was any big "news" that bandmates got high, and although it was in the play, it could've easily been left out too because it didn't lend to the piece.
But again, I can always respect a difference of opinion.

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