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Warner Miller as Levee, Doug Eskew as Slow Drag, Ebony Jo-Ann as Ma Rainey, and Cortez Nance as Cutler.
Warner Miller as Levee, Doug Eskew as Slow Drag, Ebony Jo-Ann as Ma Rainey, and Cortez Nance as Cutler.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Syracuse Stage

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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has opened the new season at Syracuse Stage and runs through October 4. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at a recent performance and has this review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM introduced playwright August Wilson to Broadway with a bang in 1984.  The play also launched Wilson's ten-play chronicle of African American life in the United States during the 20th century.  Based on the real life Ma Rainey known as the "Mother of the Blues", she was one of the first African American artists to record for Paramount records and sang in an authentic Southern-folk style.

The play takes place in a recording studio in Chicago in late March of 1927.  Levee, the young trumpet player, has written some new arrangements including one for "Black Bottom".  However Ma, the ultimate diva, insists on singing it the "familiar" way.  Frustrated by Ma and the rest of the band as well as by the unfair racism of the music business, Levee breaks out into self-destructive violence.

William Bloodgood, (isn't that a great stage name?), has designed a realistic three-level set with a rehearsal room in the basement, the recording studio above it and the engineering booth on the top level, which parallels the social hierarchy.  Helen Q. Huang's costumes are very good, especially Ma's splendid dress and Toledo's non-splendid shoes.  Whoever's responsible for make-up has done a great job on Levee's scar.

Michael G. Keck's music is very good and fits the period well.  The band does an unusually good job of faking the playing, however the recorded piano doesn't sound much like a piano.  It's an unusual lapse for veteran sound designer Jonathan Herter.

Once again I'd like to compliment Syracuse Stage on their programs.  This one includes August Wilson's preface to the play plus two interesting and informative articles by Joseph Whelan.  One is about the development of the blues including Ma Rainey's career and the other examines playwright Wilson's relationship with director Lloyd Richards.

The entire cast is exceptionally strong, although due to time constraints I can't mention everyone.  The two Syracuse University students in this cast of veterans are just fine.  Danielle Lenee' makes a flirtatious and attractive Dussie May, while James F. Miller is an excellent Sylvester handling the stutter believably and showing us a nice vulnerability.

As the white producer Sturdyvant, John Ottavino displays the nastiness and hypocrisy of some producers toward musicians, while grooving to the music in the control room.  Thomas Jefferson Byrd does a terrific job as Toledo, the piano player.  He has an air of elegance and wonderfully expressive hands.  He also has one of my favorite lines,"I've been a fool but I've never been the same fool twice."

Warren Miller gives a powerful performance as the hyped-up Levee.  The story of his mother and daddy is particularly effective.  As for Ebony Jo-Ann as Ma Rainey, she comes on stage like a mighty wind, sweeping all before her.  Always thoroughly in control of the situation and making demands to illustrate her power, she has a dynamite voice that explains her appeal.

New Artistic Director Timothy Bond has done a fine job of staging and directing the piece, especially the final scene.  He's brought us into the world of these characters and made it come alive.

On a scale of one to five the Syracuse Stage production of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM gets four and one half oranges.  For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.

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