Gift Harris temporarily halts the narrative momentum of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom when he sings a solo. With the right accompaniment, his voice wouldn’t be out of place on a David Lynch soundtrack. His vocals haunt the stage in the same way that Jimmy Scott’s “Sycamore Trees” haunts the red room in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. And, like Scott, Harris’ voice sounds neither wholly male or female. He’s channeling a communiqué from the spirit world. His solo also stands out in this production because it’s the only number that’s a complete musical thought.
Wilson’s play, from 1982, isn’t a musical or a biography of Ma Rainey (1886-1939), who’s remembered as the “Mother of the Blues.” Instead, he turns our attention to a single day in 1927 at a Chicago recording studio. Four members of Rainey’s (Susie Butler) backing band arrive before she does. While they wait for the session to begin, Cutler (Vernon Medearis), Toledo (Ernest White), Levee (Nathaniel Montgomery) and Slow Drag (Gift Harris) banter, argue and tell each other stories. But when they start to rehearse, the actors don’t actually play their instruments.
Lewis Campbell, who directs the show, dims the lights as they pretend to strum the bass or press the valves on a trombone. Their fingers mimic the rhythms of a song’s opening bars before they freeze in place. It’s a theatrical device meant to create the illusion that we’re watching a live band. As the spotlights fade to black, the actors are framed like they’re in an aged, sepia-toned photograph. The cantering pace of the music, as it starts and then abruptly stops, informs the pacing of the entire show.
During its first week of performances, the cast hadn’t settled into a comfortable rhythm with each other. But Wilson’s language carried everyone forward. The playwright gives Toledo and Levee the richest backstories. When Toledo talks about the advancement of African Americans, his bandmates dismiss him as a posturing, would-be Booker T. Washington. They pay closer attention to his stories when he tells them that his wife left him once she found religion. Levee comes across, at first, as a dandy and a womanizer. He’s late to the session because he spent a small fortune, $11, on a new pair of shoes.
Levee wants to impress Dussie Mae (Kyla Kinner) — even though she happens to be Ma Rainey’s latest lover. But he doesn’t let that inconvenient fact get in his way. When Rainey finally arrives at the studio, she brings Dussie Mae and her nephew Sylvester (Alex Loi) along. Butler plays Ma Rainey as a brittle, petulant diva who snaps at the white men who run the studio — and everyone else who’s not in her entourage. She explains that if they’re going to make money off of her records then she’s going to make those men work for it. This approach doesn’t provide much heart or add much depth to the character. But late in the play, Wilson writes a character-defining monologue for her.
Rainey explains what singing the Blues means to her, “White folks don’t understand about the Blues. They hear it come out but they don’t know how it got there. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing cause that’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.” Without providing the audience with any other details about her life, that short speech tells us who she is and what motivates her. After that, it’s disappointing to wait for and then only hear an abridged version of the title song.
Levee’s competing with Rainey for Dussie Mae’s attention and for the studio owner’s attention. Sturdyvant (Joseph Walters) says he’s interested in Levee’s original compositions, that he’s willing to record him. But after the session ends, Sturdyvant reneges on the deal. He offers to buy Levee’s songs for $5 a piece but won’t sign him. Their interaction explains why Rainey behaves the way that she does. It’s how she takes back some measure of control from the white men who are profiting from her talent. Levee wants to be more than a studio musician with a supporting role. His vanity isn’t his fatal flaw. It’s his inability to exercise power in a white man’s world.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Through Sept. 1, a Multi Ethnic Theater production at the Costume Shop Theater, 1117 Market Street, $25-$50; 415-420-8000 or wehavemet.org.