For reasons I doubt anyone can explain, the acting in this show seems to be split down the middle of the stage. As long as the action stays on the right -- in the band room where Ma Rainey's session musicians argue and shoot the shit -- it's an interesting show. Whenever the action moves upstairs and to the left -- into the recording studio, where Ma Rainey's manager and producer intervene and Ma herself acts like a diva -- things bog down. One reason has to do with Joseph Tally's and Ian Swift's wooden performances as Irvin and Sturdyvant, the manager and producer, respectively: They seem to ruin the other performers' pacing. The other reason may be that the real drama in Ma Rainey happens between two musicians, Levee and Toledo. Levee's a young, excitable, roosterish trumpet player who likes the new sound of big-band urban jazz; Toledo is a proud and solemn-voiced member of the old school, part of the slower blues tradition represented by Ma herself. They argue over which version of "Black Bottom" to play: Levee's jazzier arrangement, which is what the white record-company guys think will sell, or Ma Rainey's. The debate straddles a divide between generations of African-Americans in the 1920s. Lonnie Ford and Aldo Billingslea (as Toledo and Levee) bring this cultural context to life; they're compelling and funny until the last scene, which falls flat. Singer Michelle Jordan is also flat as Ma herself until she opens her mouth to sing; for the price of admission you get her excellent versions of "Hear Me Talkin' to You" and "Black Bottom" (Ma Rainey style). Directed by Luther James.
Through Nov. 19. Admission is $22-30; call 474-8800.