August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Two River Theater: Stunning!

The Wikipedia entry for Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, known as the Mother of the Blues, lists her life span as April 1886 to December 1939. Based on Two River Theater’s stunning production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, tacking on a September 2016 resurrection would not be inappropriate. With an incredibly talented (more important, skilled) cast, impeccably directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the voice of one of America’s greatest playwrights has never rung with more passion or clarity. (Wilson died in 2005; another of the greats, Edward Albee, died on the day Ma Rainey opened at Two River.)

August Wilson’s ‘Century Cycle’ is composed of ten plays that explore the 20th Century African-American experience (coping mechanisms, if you will), decade-by-decade. The first to be staged on Broadway (in 1984), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the 1920s entry. It is vividly outspoken on the black-white racial divide of its time. Set in a Chicago recording studio, the play progresses from routine bantering among the band members, through Ma Rainey’s tempestuous arrival and performance, to a devastating conclusion.

Despite the title, and Ma’s dominant presence once she enters (well into the first act), the principal plot centers on the band members’ interactions with one another and their dealings with Ma’s white manager and with the studio operator, also white. Bass player Slow Drag (Harvey Blanks) and trombone player Cutler (James A. Williams) are relatively easy-going (up to a point), with piano man Toledo (Brian D. Coats) being the resident intellectual. (He reads). All three establish distinct personalities, which conflict at various interludes with that of trumpet player Levee, a virtuosic performance by Brandon J. Dirden.

Brandon J. Dirden in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (Those shoes also play an important role.)

Brandon J. Dirden                    (Those shoes play an important role.)

Levee is a hot-head with an ego that he stifles around “the white man”. A gruesome childhood experience, detailed in a searing monologue by Dirden (to pin-drop quiet) taught Levee “how to handle them,” but it’s a lesson upended by reality. Dirden’s Levee is by turns upbeat, angry, assertive, timid, even sexy and, lest I forget to mention, very funny. As serious as is the play’s underlying theme, the effect of white-to-black racism on its victims, the band members’ quips and jibes provide plenty of humor, a technique that the playwright mastered, lending necessary balance to the play’s harrowing aspects. (A friend wrote me that she was  gripped by an “un-erasable and haunting thought” about what Levee’s “justifiable rage” had led to.)

Ma comes in like gangbusters, trailed by her nephew Sylvester, pretty young Dussie Mae, and an irate policeman whose investigation of a fender-bender does not sit well with Ma. (“Madame Rainey,” she informs the cop. “Get it straight!”) Relishing the opportunity to assert power over her obsequious oppressors (however temporarily), Ma Rainey is a force of nature, as is Arnetia Walker, who plays the proud diva to a tee, complete with glimpses of the woman’s less-assuredness. (Walker also belts out the title song: terrific!)

Ma Rainey (Arnetia Walker) sings and Dussie Mae (Chante Adams) swings during the "Black Bottom" recording session (Photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Ma Rainey (Arnetia Walker) sings and Dussie Mae (Chante Adams) swings during the “Black Bottom” recording session (Photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Despite nephew Sylvester’s persistent stutter, Ma insists that he narrate a spoken portion of her song. Laughing at someone’s speech impediment is hardly appropriate today (if it ever was), but as deftly played by Marcel Spears it is impossible not to.  Dussie Mae’s attachment to Ma and her dalliance with Levee reveal those three’s sexual proclivities. Chanté Adams turns the initially demure Dussie Mae into a first class vamp (it is the 20s, after all).

Michael Cumpsty gets more from Ma’s go-along-to-get-along manager than is on the page; Peter Van Wagner is just unctuous enough as the studio owner; and Bob Mackasek does a nice job as the cop.

The technical credits are exemplary. Charlie Corcoran’s multi-level set delineates the several separate areas, which the lighting design (Burke Brown) further clarifies. Sound designer Robert Kaplowitz’s synchronization with the text (and the actors) is flawless, a feat that dazzles without distracting.

The performances by Walker, Dirden et al, cannot be over-praised, nor can Santiago-Hudson’s intuitive direction. The star of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, however, is the playwright, a status Two River has acknowledged with superlative productions of Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running and Jitney in recent years. Now, twenty-one years after its founding by Bob and Joan Rechnitz, Two River Theater has become a major showcase for the August Wilson canon. Four down; six to go. Can’t wait.

Through Oct. 9 at Two River Theater, Red Bank, NJ. Wed. at 1 & 7PM; Thurs. & Fri. at 8; Sat. at 3 & 8; Sun. at 3PM. Tickets ($40-$70): 7632-345-1400 or online at

Blog, Professional, Regional

A ground-breaking Othello in “Red Velvet” at NJ Shakespeare and “Cheaper By the Dozen” down the shore

Have you ever seen Othello played by a Caucasian actor? I’ve seen Orson Welles’s and Laurence Olivier’s “blacked-up” film versions, and Pavarotti singing the Verdi operatic role at Carnegie Hall years ago, but never a white Moor on stage. (My first Othello was James Earl Jones in Central Park in 1964.)

Neither had I ever heard of American-born Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play the role on a London stage, until Red Velvet. Veteran British stage and screen actress Lolita Chakrabarti’s first-written play, on stage now at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, is about the hiring of Aldridge to replace Edmund Kean in the role after Kean had collapsed during a performance at Covent Garden in March 1833. (He died two months later.)

The ensuing reactions to Aldridge’s appearance among the production participants, the public and the critics (some of them vile), is a fascinating tale, made more so by the fact that it occurred three decades before our Emancipation Proclamation (although England officially abolished slavery that same year, 1833).

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Blog, Community, Professional, Regional

“Iago” not the only villain at New Jersey Rep

Legend has it that when British producer-actor Sir Donald Wolfit toured as Othello, he was dismayed when Iago got all the notices. He replaced the actor with a less-talented fellow, who also dominated the reviews, and then with the assistant stage manager: no change. By the end of the tour, Wolfit himself was playing the crafty villain and basking in praise for his performance. He could take a hint, old Wolfit could. After all, bad guys tend to be more interesting than good guys; besides, Iago is the larger role (1098 lines to Othello’s 887).

James McLure, who died of cancer in 2011 at age 59, set his last-produced play against a misguided production of Shakespeare’s Othello. In an admired creative stroke, McLure titled his play Iago. Seeing the play at New Jersey Repertory Company, however, brings to mind the time-worn adage: Don’t judge a play by its title.

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Blog, Professional, Regional

The paws that refresh: “CATS” back on Broadway

Has any long-run Broadway show counted as many detractors as has Cats? (Besides Oh, Calcutta! I mean.) Upon hearing that I was attending the Broadway revival, comments from friends and colleagues ranged from mild disdain (“It’s not one of my favorites”), through haughty derision (“It’s touristy kitsch”), to outright loathing (“You couldn’t pay me to sit through that crap”). Well, Cats is not my all-time favorite, and I hardly classify it as high art, but you could (and they did) pay me to sit through it, which I would gladly do again.

The naming of cats is a difficult matter, It isn’t just one of your holiday games;  You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter/When I tell you, a cat must have three different names.

          So begins “The Naming of Cats,” the first poem in T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, upon which the musical is based. The characters are from the poems and nearly all the lyrics to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s more-than-serviceable score are verbatim. Cats had been running in London for 18 months when it opened on Broadway in October, 1982 and went on to run for 18 years. Its 7,485 performances ranks fourth all-time, behind Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, at 12,000; the Chicago revival, approaching ten times the original’s 936; and The Lion King, nearing 8,000. (All three are still running.)

The cats of CATS

The CATS cats

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

At Shaw Festival: Wilde, Gilbert and young Alice too!

[As appears in September issue of American Mensa Magazine]

In 1962 a group of Canadians and Americans produced weekend performances of George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell and Candida in a Court House hall in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. From that modest beginning was born the only Theatre Festival in the world devoted to the plays of Shaw and his contemporaries (and modern plays that reflect Shaw’s values). There could be no better representation of that early mandate than the four plays I saw there recently: one each by Shaw himself, Oscar Wilde, W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan), and one by Lewis Carroll, via a musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Their Alice is indeed a wonder of design and execution. The sets, costumes, lighting and rear-wall projections are spectacular and the stylized performances are triumphs of impersonation, with a 22-member cast inhabiting some 70 roles. (One actor plays a sardine, the Caterpillar, the King of Hearts and, um, a lobster.)

Alice (at right) with Wonderland denizens (Photos: Emily & David Cooper)

Alice (at right) with Wonderland denizens (Photos: Emily & David Cooper)

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Blog, Canadian Theatre

“To Kill a Mockingbird” at Holmdel Theatre Company

Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s semi-autobiographical To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most revered American novels of all time, and the 1962 movie is one of the best book-to-films ever made. Christopher Sergel’s redundant stage adaptation premiered at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1991, going on to be widely produced in Regional and community theaters as well as in high schools, where it was, in fact, intended.

The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the movie won multiple Oscars, including Best Picture. The play’s dialogue is mostly lifted from the source(s), and it falls back on periodic narration, as did the film (voiced by Kim Stanley), a device which, on stage, impedes continuity.  Its community theater popularity is fostered by nostalgia and by its box office appeal. By and large, Holmdel audiences are getting their money’s worth.   

The story is embedded in the American firmament. In a small Alabama town in the 1930s, a white lawyer defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The outcome of the trial is pre-determined by the racial makeup of the participants; an all-white jury finds the defendant guilty despite clear evidence to the contrary. The emotional center, however, is the effect the widowed lawyer’s actions have on his two children. The first act centers on the family dynamics; the second act shows the trial itself. As vivid as courtroom drama can be, the first is the more satisfying act, as directed and acted at Holmdel.

From left: Ceci Lihn, Will Ehren and Aman Tolia in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

From left: Ceci Lihn (Scout), Will Ehren (Jem) and Aman Tolia (Dill) in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Photos: Jaye Freeland)

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Blog, Community, Regional