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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom 

A divide between generations of African-Americans in the 1920s

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
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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.

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