BNS Productions’ Ma Rainey hits every blue note in triumphant production at NBTF | music


BNS Productions’ Ma Rainey hits every blue note in triumphant production at NBTF

Set in a recording studio in frigid Chicago in 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a heart-wrenching story of stifled creativity, racism, inequality, exploitation, and inequity in the US in general and the music business specifically. It is part of August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle.

Corlis Hayes ably directs this beautifully conceived production by BNS Productions from Charlotte. The lighting design by Jennifer O’Kelly defines the spaces on James Duke’s partly abstract, partly realistic set. The play occupies a rundown recording studio, a rehearsal room, and foyer/waiting area.

When the play starts, two white record executives and Ma Rainey’s band members are anxiously awaiting her arrival. The band members entertain themselves with good-natured (mostly) banter, social philosophy, tall tales, and personal histories, which provide context for the action.

Tom Scott plays Sturdyvant, a greedy record producer. Hank West is Irvin, Ma Rainey’s well-meaning but somewhat inept manager. Tim Bradley is Cutler, the trombone player and bandleader. Jermaine Gamble is Toledo, the philosophical piano player. Graham William is Slow Drag, the bass player. Jonavan Adams is Levee, the trumpet player who is overflowing with creativity, ideas, energy, and impatience. Shar Marlin plays Ma Rainey, the great blues pioneer. Toi Aquila RJ plays Dussie Mae, Ma’s flirtatious girlfriend. Rahsheem Shabazz is Sylvester, Ma’s nephew and protege. Michael Anderson plays the policeman who has charged Ma with battery.

Marlin’s Mais a force of nature, storming onto the stage in her long-awaited entrance with the ferocity and chaos of a hurricane. Mais a diva in every sense of the word: demanding, capricious, brilliant. But it’s clear that she has to demand respect to get it, and that the record company wants her only for what she can give them. Marlin’s performance is big and bright and effectively contains the rest of the action of the play.

In the role of Levee, Adams is as different from the late Chadwick Boseman is it is possible to be. Boseman played the role in the recent Netflix film, and while comparisons are usually odious, in this case, it is interesting to note how two great actors – physically different and in dramatic approach – can make a role entirely their own. Where Boseman was smaller and tightly wound, Adams is powerfully physical with an overall affect of affability, so his pain and intensity from him comes out unexpectedly. Adams definitely surpasses the challenge of this complex and exciting role.

Although Ma Rainey, the Queen of the Blues, has the title role in the show, the ensemble has plenty of air time, and every one on the stage performs at a high level of talent and skill.

This is the first show by a Charlotte company to ever perform at the Festival, according to Keith Logan, who performs with BNS productions, and corroborated by Brian McLaughlin at NBTF. I hope it’s not the last.

Who: National Black Theater Festival

What: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by BNS Productions, Charlotte, NC. Written by August Wilson. Directed by Dr. Corlis Hayes. (Drama, General Audience)

When: 2 and 8 pm Aug. 6

Onde: Wake Forest University, Harold C. Tedford Mainstage

Tickets: $45 at https://ncblackrep.org/2022-nbtf-performance-schedule/

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