There’s no getting past the past. There’s making peace with it. There’s taking pride in coming through it. But the past is profoundly, inevitably part of the present, an idea at the heart of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — and Black History Month.
The memorial month in fact began as “Negro History Week” in 1926, just a year before the events in Ma Rainey take place. Set in Chicago, it is the only one of the seminal African-American dramatist’s 10 plays not to transpire in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson — whose politically charged theater changed the landscape even as it drew comparisons to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams — died just a few years before this nation elected as president a black man who started his political career as a Chicago community organizer.
Progress doesn’t come easily or overnight. Like Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wilson claimed a space for African Americans in theater, the black artists in Ma Rainey struggle to own their contributions to the American musical scene. Wilson once said he kept telling the same story over and over again: Life is hard. This month, that story is being told by San Antonio’s Renaissance Guild at the Carver Community Cultural Center.
Act I of Ma Rainey plays a little like Waiting for Godot, if Godot were a big, beautiful, boisterous blues singer (with boobs) who eventually showed up, and with a damn good excuse. Her band of four musicians — Toledo (Kevin Majors), Cutler (Michael Gray), Slow Drag (Charles Riley), and Levee (Arthur Bouier) — await her in the rehearsal room of a recording studio, less concerned with their truant party than those dodos in Godot. Such concerns are best left to Rainey’s manager, Irvin (Steven Valdez). The pipsqueak should know a queen is never late — everyone else is early — but it’s tough to keep that in mind with a sleazy, racist producer like Sturdyvant (David Clingan) breathing down your neck.
Renaissance Guild set designer Hector Machado has drawn from Wilson’s text to build a genuine sense of segregation on the Carver stage: The lowly back-up musicians are allocated to the cramped rehearsal room on the left like workhorses to stalls; the white overlords, in their wide-lapelled, double-breasted suits, have the recording stage to the right all to themselves — until Ma takes over.
Truth be told, there isn’t much rehearsing that needs doing until then. Each musician has his own way of passing the time, and each actor performs his stage business as if he was born doing so: Toledo thumbs through a book, Slow Drag plays cards, Levee shows off his new shoes, and Cutler rolls a joint.
All the while, and more importantly, insults and stories are exchanged, reflective of individuals striving to identify their relationship with the past and with the White Man. (The actors are such marvelously attentive listeners, you’d think they’d never heard one another’s lines before.) When Slow Drag tries to score some jolly green off of Cutler by invoking their history of shared exploits, Toledo looks up from his hardback long enough to tell them how African what Slow Drag’s just done is — except rather than appealing to ancestors or deities, his bandmate has “forgotten the name of the gods” and must instead summon slightly more profane bonds of kinship.
Levee, a virtuosic horn player and composer, doesn’t know about African or higher powers: His unsettling childhood memories, made right here in the U.S. of A., are far too fresh, too bleak. Director Antoinette F. Winstead certainly made the right decision in casting the towering, expressive Bouier, who recounts Levee’s tragedy with his entire voice and body. His only rival for stage presence is, naturally, the grandiose Tamara Cline-Russell as Ma Rainey, the real-life vocalist known as the Mother of the Blues.
Today, Rainey’s face is on a postage stamp and her name has been dropped mid-song by Bob Dylan, but in the 1927 Chicago, Wilson shows us, she was getting hassled by the police and refused refreshments by her producer. Hands on her hips and pointer finger stuck inch-deep into the chests of incompliant bigots, regally purple-clad Cline-Russell is having none of it, especially from the far less substantial Sturdyvant. The muscle of her demands and rebuffs is so melodic, I was eager to hear her sing the title song at last, and not disappointed when she did.
It isn’t in her tune, though, that Rainey best expresses Wilson’s views on music and the role of struggle: “You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause there’s a way of understanding life ... The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world.” Life is hard — but not hopeless. •