In the life of any theatergoer there are certain productions that glow in the memory.
Here’s one of mine: The opening night of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’’ a new play by a little-known writer named August Wilson, at the Yale Repertory Theatre in April 1984.
Midway through the first act, I knew I was experiencing something special, and so did the rest of the audience, to judge by the air of excitement in the theater. We were present for the emergence of a playwright whose vividly drawn characters seemed to carry in their very bones large truths about the essence of the African-American experience, in all its joys, sorrows, and singular historical weight.
Over the next two decades, Wilson more than fulfilled the promise of that evening in New Haven. By the time he died - way too young and way too soon, succumbing to cancer at age 60 in 2005 - the arc of achievement that began at Yale Rep encompassed 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century. It’s a body of work that decisively establishes Wilson as one of the foremost playwrights of his generation.
As with any playwright, of course, Wilson’s work depends on directors who can give compelling form to his vision onstage. He had one such early collaborator in Yale Rep artistic director Lloyd Richards, who was at the helm for the 1984 premiere of “Ma Rainey’’ and the subsequent Broadway production.
Wilson has another stalwart champion in Liesl Tommy, director of a passionate and insightful new production of “Ma Rainey’’ by the Huntington Theatre Company.
With “Ma Rainey,’’ the Huntington has now produced all 10 works in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,’’ also known as the “Century Cycle.’’ (“Ma Rainey’’ is the only one not set in Pittsburgh.) Tommy establishes her imprint right from the start, opening with a prelude - not called for in Wilson’s script - that is wordless yet eloquent in the way it underscores the cultural debt the present owes the past. Not so incidentally, the prelude also suggests an homage to the man, now gone, who created the play we are about to see.
As in her superb staging of Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson’’ at Yale Rep last year (and, for that matter, in her production of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined’’ at the Huntington, also in 2011), Tommy draws strong performances from her “Ma Rainey’’ cast, including Yvette Freeman as the legendary blues singer of the title.
But the spellbinding center of the Huntington production is Jason Bowen. In his portrayal of Levee, an ambitious young trumpet player, Bowen delivers a performance of volcanic force, rivaling that of Charles S. Dutton, the original Levee.
“Ma Rainey’’ unfolds, in a deceptively aimless fashion, in a Chicago recording studio on a winter afternoon in 1927. Gertrude “Ma’’ Rainey and her four backup musicians are slated to record a passel of songs, but Ma is running late. While the musicians wait for her to arrive, they rehearse, banter, bicker, and tell stories that are drawn from the road, from their lives, and from the ugly, racist times in which they live. The play contains several examples of the long, revelatory monologue that would become one of the hallmarks of Wilson’s work.
The musicians include the stolid, nattily attired Cutler (G. Valmont Thomas), a guitarist and trombone player who is the leader of the group; Toledo, a bow-tied pianist with a bookish and philosophical bent, played by Charles Weldon; and Slow Drag (Glenn Turner), the laconic bass player. They are veterans, comfortable with the old ways, but Levee is openly contemptuous of Ma’s “jug band music.’’
Determined to launch a band of his own, to forge a new style and a new sound, Levee has written several songs, which the white owner of the record label, Sturdyvant (Thomas Derrah), has promised to record. Beyond the musical disputes with the other band members, Levee clashes with them over everything from the value of new shoes to the nature of God; there is also a combative exchange over how to improve social conditions for black citizens in a white-dominated nation.
Eventually, Ma arrives at the studio, regal in a velvet dress and a dazzling black coat with a kind of plumage fanning out from the neck (by costume designer Clint Ramos, who also created the suitably drab, utilitarian set). Accompanying Ma are her girlfriend (played by Joniece Abbott-Pratt) and her nephew (played by Corey Allen).
A power struggle soon ensues, as the singer jousts not just with Sturdyvant but also her own manager, Irvin (Will LeBow). Both white men are prepared to exploit the black performers if given the chance. They want Ma to record the songs with Levee’s arrangements, but Ma insists on her prerogatives, on matters small (she requires Coca-Cola when she sings) and all-important (creative control, personal dignity). Levee may see Ma as a relic, but she is extremely savvy about business - and about race.
Freeman, who played nurse Haleh Adams on NBC’s “ER,’’ captures Ma’s fiery, never-give-an-inch quality, and when she finally sings “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’’ she brings down the house. But Freeman also endows the singer with a certain wistfulness, even gentleness, especially when dealing with her nephew, who stutters badly.
Thomas, Weldon, and Turner similarly find subtle notes to play in suggesting the hard-won resiliency of Cutler, Toledo, and Slow Drag. It is Levee, though, who proves to be the most complicated figure onstage. For all his talk of the future, history exerts a strong hold on him, and when Bowen lets us see into the corners of Levee’s player’s tortured psyche, he is simply riveting.
“Ma Rainey’’ is, in part, a parable about the destructive impact on a community of years of humiliation and subjugation and being pushed too far. But Tommy’s fine Huntington production reminds us that it’s also about the sustaining power of cultural tradition in keeping the heart of that community beating strong - a tradition of which the plays of August Wilson are now a permanent and vital part. Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.