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U Theatre’s “Ma Rainey” Makes Her Mark

March 4, 2012

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Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey, known as “the Mother of the Blues,” struts into the Chicago recording studio an hour late and bigger then life, demanding a Coca-Cola before she will even sing one note of her popular “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” She’s the queen of the hour in University Theatre’s current production of August Wilson’s play of the same name, but she knows the score.

“They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice,” says Rainey (jaki-terry) about her white producer and manager. “As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.”

The sentiment summarizes the theme of Wilson’s play, the first of the 10 plays that the late author wrote about the African-American experience in 20th century America. The mostly black cast, under Patrick Sims’ direction, tells the tale with raucous, bawdy humor and an underlying sense of tragedy, which eventually comes to fruition in an unexpected fashion.

The narrative chronicles one day in 1927, when Rainey and her quartet arrive to record several of the popular artist’s songs. Ma is late, so the band spends its time killing time and occasionally bickering in ongoing discussions about the coming changes in music.

Young trumpter Levee (Trevon Jackson), who both outdresses and outplays his band mates, is looking for something better, a newer sound than the “jug band music” the musicians are used to playing. Slow Drag (LaVar Charleston) doesn’t much care what they play “as long as it don’t take all night,” while bandleader Cutler (Tory Latham) knows that they will play just exactly what Ma wants them to play.

Only Toledo (Alfred Wilson), a seasoned veteran of the blues circuit, attempts to understand and even reason with Levee, who becomes wound tighter with each passing moment of the play. Those efforts eventually cost the piano player dearly.

Sims’ cast delivers with style and authenticity in a compelling, multi-leveled William Moser set designed to both enhance and restrain the characters in their various elements. Katie Gray’s costumes help support the period feeling and the constant banter allows us to easily understand how African-American musicians were victimized by white record producers of the day, who always seemed to make a better living than the artists themselves. And as the band members show, that’s just the tip of an iceberg of racism.

The production runs through March 17 in the Mitchell Theatre on the UW-Madison campus.

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