As America marks the annual Black History Month, a revival of the play that launched the career of the United States' leading African-American playwright takes to the Broadway stage.
"As long as the colored man looks to white folks to put the crown on what he says, as long as he looks to white folks for approval, then he ain't never going to know who he is, and what he's about. He's just going to be about what white folks want him to be about. And that's one sure thing."
So says "Toledo", the pianist in the play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Throughout the play, his witty commentaries serve as poignant reminders that life for most African-Americans in the 1920s was fraught with hardship and bigotry.
Ma Rainey was one of the most popular entertainers of early 20th century America. With hit songs like, CC Rider, Jelly Bean Blues and Bo-Weevil Blues, the bawdy blues singer single-handedly turned Paramount Records from a subsidiary of a furniture company into a major force in the American music industry.
She performed with famed trumpet player Louis Armstrong, the great Blues singer Bessie Smith, and popular band leader Tommy Dorsey - impressive achievements for any artist, but especially for an outspoken, bisexual black woman living in the United States some 30 years before the Civil Rights movement.
In 1984, African-American playwright August Wilson was catapulted to the forefront of the U.S. theater scene with the success of his play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, named after one of Ma Rainey's songs. The play was voted Best Play of the Year by the New York Drama Critics' Circle.
The audience often responds verbally to the play's observations on the plight of African-Americans. Carl Gordon plays a trombonist named Cutler. He says the dialogue elicits "mm-hms" and "a-mens" because many people see similarities between their world and Ma Rainey's. "Five-hundred years of slavery. It is hard to get that yoke off your back, to understand that you are not this individual that people have said you are," he says. "When you are faced with it every day still, it's hard. America has to understand that, yes, we (African-Americans) have these problems. But they come from past history, and they have to be addressed, and we have to have patience. But we have to help each other overcome all of this."
Still, Mr. Gordon says, blacks and whites sit in the Ma Rainey audience together, listening to unflattering comments made about them both. He calls this an important step forward.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is the first in a cycle of 10 Wilson plays documenting the African-American experience in the 20th century. It focuses on the pressures of an abusive music business, known for victimizing its black artists.
The central figure in the play is not Ma herself, but Levee, Ma's trumpeter, played by Charles Dutton. Levee's life is scarred by racism, but he remains determined to succeed as a musician in the white world. His determination blinds him to risks, however, and he is cheated out of one of his own compositions. Ultimately, the play ends in tragedy.
Mr. Dutton originated the role in the 1984 production. He says his role, like most August Wilson roles, requires special attention, because it deals so directly with traditional black stereotypes. "If his plays aren't acted and directed with a sense of dignity, then August Wilson's plays can be the most derogatory plays about black people written in the last 50-60 years. I've seen productions of August Wilson's plays where I have had to walk out of the theater," he says. "They have been so god-awful, and, in a way, racist, that you wonder what the hell the writer was thinking about when he wrote these things. Just because you're a black actor doesn't mean you can do August Wilson. Just because you're a British actor doesn't mean you can do Shakespeare. It takes a sense of personal dignity in your own life to be able to pull these characters to where they are real lives, and not just as some black cartoon characters on the stage."
Mr. Dutton and his fellow actors all have great reverence for the work of August Wilson, they call themselves "Wilsonian" actors, and most have played in other Wilson plays.
Stephen McKinley Henderson play Slow Drag, Levee's band-mate, Ma Rainey's bassist. He says a powerful message unites all Wilson plays. "That message to the African-American is also to all people. We are a continuum. We come from a source, and hopefully our life is a bridge to somewhere else," he says. "There is a great honor in the people who lived lives that were not in the spotlight. They met the challenges in their life. These people who lived through these previous decades faced difficulties, which we don't have to face now because they met that challenge."
Then, of course, says Mr. Henderson, there is the music - which permeates all of Wilson's plays - it is essential to the message. "The blues and jazz wouldn't exist if the African had not been sent through this crazy experience in America. But because that art form exists, people in the world can understand [that] it came from a human experience," he says.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom also features Academy Award-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg in the role of Ma Rainey. She is drawing uneven reviews, but critics' fondness for the play and the ensemble cast, in particular Charles Dutton, is winning the production some favorable attention on this, its second time around.