When "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" opened on Broadway in 1984, it was our first exposure to the fresh, important voice of August Wilson. The revival of "Ma Rainey," directed by Marion McClinton, is uneven, but it reminds us how strong that voice remains. When "Ma Rainey" was submitted to the Eugene O'Neill Center, in Waterford, Conn., it consisted of 12 pages of dialogue. The O'Neill's artistic director Lloyd Richards, one of the quiet heroes of the contemporary theater, read them and realized there was a voice there that needed to be drawn out. He worked with Wilson to develop "Ma Rainey.”
Interestingly, the play foreshadows all of Wilson's work. Its greatest strength is its mellow, jazz-like dialogue. In Wilson's plays, however, a subdued mood invariably masks pain and presages sudden violence. Here, the style can only be jazz-like, since most of the characters are jazz musicians, whiling away the hours before a session. The reason for the delay is the tempestuous Ma Rainey, a successful recording star whose demons force her to be difficult on everyone around her. In the original production, the title character was played by Theresa Merritt. When she came onstage, she brought the weight of the African-American past with her. Her orneriness suggested uncontrollable impulses that fueled her art. Whoopi Goldberg, one of the producers of this revival, plays Ma Rainey, but she never conveys the size of the character. She never gives us more than the rambunctiousness we associate with Whoopi herself. As a result, her scenes almost seem a subplot rather than the focus of the play. Into this vacuum steps Charles S. Dutton, who was in the original production. Again, he plays a trumpeter whose ambitions are thwarted by unscrupulous white managers. He erupts in several powerful Wilson tirades. Eventually his frustration explodes in a violent gesture that grows from self-destructive impotence. The performance is impressive, if a bit outsize for its surroundings. Goldberg and Dutton are surrounded by a beguiling cast, especially Carl Gordon, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who positively radiate as the other musicians. Heather Alicia Simms gives a wickedly saucy performance as Ma Rainey's Sapphic playmate; Anthony Mackie is funny and touching as her stammering nephew, and Louis Zorich and Jack Davidson are strong as the white heavies. David Gallo's set conveys the run-down quality of the recording studio. Toni-Leslie James' costumes are suitably jazzy. Her outfit for Goldberg has a kind of raffish splendor. "Ma Rainey" remains a fascinating play, even without a strong Ma Rainey.
When August Wilson burst upon Broadway in 1984 with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," two stars were born - Wilson, a new playwright of stature, and his lead actor, the hitherto unknown but explosive Charles S. Dutton.
Last night at the Royale Theatre, Wilson, Dutton and Ma Rainey - freshly enthroned in the imperious presence of Whoopi Goldberg - were back for an encore.
So what has time done for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" - improved it, shriveled it or left it much as it was? The answer seems a bit of all three.
What is certain is that Wilson has abundantly lived up to his early promise, having nearly completed his aim of producing a 10-play cycle charting, decade by decade, the history of the black experience in America during the 20th century.
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is set in '20s Chicago, unlike his other plays, which are set in Philadelphia. Here, in a recording studio, the great blues singer Ma Rainey - a real and celebrated figure in jazz history - is laying tracks for a series of 78-rpm discs.
Rainey is a diva, the best seller on the Paramount "Race" label - and a shrewd, canny bitch, complete with a young lesbian lover (with wandering eyes), a protégé nephew and a tremulous if rancidly determined white manager.
The nephew stutters, but Ma insists, all the same, that he provide a spoken introduction to her song.
Goldberg is one of the joys of this new production. She sings well - granted, she's no Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith - and acts with a cutting force.
This Ma Rainey knows that while she's a star, a big star, she's also a black star who, when she walks out of the studio, can't call a cab on the street.
That kind of irony - the interplay between black and white culture, before civil rights - was the real strength of Wilson's play.
Still, Wilson has done it better in some of his later plays, even his earlier play "Jitney," and seeing "Rainey" in its new place in the cycle highlights its weak construction, particularly in its melodramatic ending.
On the other hand, Wilson's sense of characterization is masterful. His portraits of Ma; the ambitious, abrasive trumpet player Levee (Dutton); and all the other jazzmen and hangers-on are etched in the blood of reality.
Marion McClinton's staging is smoothly conversational, David Gallo's raggedly ratty setting proves superb, while Toni-Leslie James' neatly period costumes are perhaps a shade too elegant.
The acting is beautiful, with an exquisite interplay between the three sidemen, Carl Gordon (Cutler), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Slow Drag) and the marvelously laconic Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Toledo).
Dutton is still a storm. He seethes with the constant menace of thunder, but a Levee in his early 50s is rather different from a Levee in his early 30s.
This "Ma Rainey" doesn't generate the same excitement as it did back in 1984 - but it's definitely worth seeing.
It's the music, of all things, that's so conspicuously missing from the hollow new revival of ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,'' August Wilson's landmark play from 1984 about a blues recording session in jazz-age Chicago. Oh sure, an assortment of peppery period songs still figure in the show, which opened last night at the Royale Theater in an anxiously awaited production starring Charles S. Dutton and Whoopi Goldberg.
What you rarely hear, though, is the enthralling music of words that makes Mr. Wilson one of the few certifiably great dramatists working today. More than any of his peers, Mr. Wilson creates plays that, spoken in the right way, truly sing, with voices melding into symphonic portraits of African-American culture throughout the 20th century. Plagued during rehearsals by highly public arguments among its creative and managerial teams, this ''Ma Rainey,'' directed by Marion McClinton, rarely gets past the level of an orchestra still tentatively tuning up.
The failure to make good on what promised to be one of the most exciting revivals in years should qualify ''Ma Rainey'' instead as the most poignant heartbreaker of the season. Not only does the production feature the formidable talents of Mr. Dutton, recreating the character he originated 19 years ago, and Ms. Goldberg, in the title role of the earthy, imperious singer. But ''Ma Rainey'' is also the work that introduced New York audiences to Mr. Wilson, initiating a rich cycle of plays from its author that, over the succeeding two decades, would pick up nearly every award available. And by most accounts, ''Ma Rainey'' hit Broadway like a thunderclap when it first opened.
''The writer August Wilson sends the entire history of black America crashing down upon our heads,'' Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times in 1984. Mr. Wilson's wasn't the only debut to race pulses. As an ambitious, self-destructive trumpeter named Levee, Mr. Dutton, then 37, garnered the kinds of critical hosannas that guarantee that most beloved of theatrical metamorphoses, overnight stardom.
Audiences new to ''Ma Rainey'' may leave the Royale wondering if New Yorkers of 1984 hadn't come down with a collective case of the vapors. While the innate tragic grandeur and gritty, stinging humor of this story of racial exploitation and musicians at loggerheads can be discerned in fitful flashes, the production never achieves the rushing momentum required to capture Mr. Wilson's astonishing feel for the convergence of character and cultural destiny.
Much of this comes from the ensemble's inability to find the shared, world-shaping rhythm that is so essential to putting over its author's vision, which was embodied to perfection by the team of actors in Mr. McClinton's production of Mr. Wilson's ''Jitney'' several years ago. Yet even Ms. Goldberg, in a low-key shrug of a performance, and more bizarrely, Mr. Dutton seldom seem to believe unconditionally in their material.
Granted, the circumstances surrounding this revival -- darkly appropriate to a play that deals with artistic clashes -- have hardly been conducive to harmony. Early in rehearsals, three cast members left the show, and last week Mr. McClinton was hospitalized, suffering from low potassium levels.
There were also unsettling declarations of bad faith from Mr. Dutton, the initiator of this revival, who with Ms. Goldberg complained about the show's producers in an interview with Time Out New York. He has gone on record as saying he believes that ''the definitive production'' of ''Ma Rainey'' happened in 1984. And his Playbill biography includes the Barrymore-worthy announcement that he is leaving the stage forever. ''I have done the theater some service, and they know it . . .,'' he is quoted as saying in a paraphrase of ''Othello.'' ''No more of that!''
If this is indeed Mr. Dutton's farewell Broadway performance, it's a shame. For while this actor may no longer fit the part that made his reputation, he is clearly still made for the stage, with his air-filling baritone voice and naturally heroic presence.
Unfortunately, he now brings too much authoritative weight to the part of Levee, the firebrand musician who is the play's doomed protagonist. As originally written, Levee was a 32-year-old hard-playing songwriter at the end of his youth, clutching at his last chance for success.
A member of the backup quartet for Gertrude (Ma) Rainey (a real-life legend of early race records), Levee aspires to a newer, jazzier kind of music than the jugband style that Ma favors. And while the temperamental, fame-bloated Ma is one kind of casualty of the white music establishment (embodied by Louis Zorich and Jack Davidson as a record producer and Ma's agent, respectively), the younger, eager Levee is its most harrowing victim.
When Mr. Dutton first appears onstage, sleek and prosperous-looking in a pinstriped suit, he hardly seems like the harbinger of a new era. Even restlessly tattooing the floor with his feet, he oozes gravitas, like a dapper, well-fed alderman. His gestures are emphatic, semaphoric and evangelical. Imagine, if you can, a hybrid of Clark Gable, Al Sharpton and Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, and you'll have some idea of the singular figure Mr. Dutton cuts here.
It would be one thing if these elements cohered into a convincingly fluid performance. But Mr. Dutton, who took over the show's direction during Mr. McClinton's illness, plays some scenes in rimshot comic style and others as if they were Verdi opera, with no emotional bridge between. In this sense, his performance reflects the overall production, in which soliloquies, jokes and musical numbers register like pieces of an unassembled jigsaw puzzle.
As Levee and his fellow musicians (Carl Gordon, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Stephen McKinley Henderson) jam, spar and tell the sort of history-defining anecdotes that are Mr. Wilson's specialty, you are always aware of the dead air that surrounds them. Cues are picked up slowly and awkwardly, and most speeches have pauses you could drive a train through. Only the excellent Mr. Henderson, a veteran of Wilson productions, gives the impression of existing in one continuous present.
As the domineering Ma Rainey, who arrives late to the recording session with her luscious young girlfriend (Heather Alicia Simms) and untalented nephew (Anthony Mackie, of the film ''8 Mile'') in tow, Ms. Goldberg is strangely subdued. As played by Theresa Merritt in the original Broadway version, Ma was a monstrous, flashy figure whom Mr. Rich described as ''a sad, ludicrous 'imitation' of white stardom.''
Yet in Ms. Goldberg's folksy, soft-spoken interpretation (at moments, she is scarcely audible), Ma emerges as a commonsensical, grandmotherly type who looks after her own and has learned how to beat the white man at his own game. Even dressed in a flaming red flapper dress (the flavorful period costumes are by Toni-Leslie James) and singing bawdy songs, she exudes a low-key affability.
The fierce, titanic presence needed to offset Mr. Dutton's simply isn't there. And without a feeling of Ma and Levee as generational bookends, distorted in different but equally powerful ways by the lust for success in a white world, the play sags from imbalance.
An air of diffuseness is evident even in David Gallo's set, with its evocation of the buildings of Chicago beyond the two central playing areas of the recording studio and the rehearsal room. It's a handsome effect, but the broader city backdrop lessens the claustrophobic intensity of the confrontations among the characters, who are all, in different ways, trapped.
None of this would make much difference if the ensemble members could unite in finding the authentic voice of Mr. Wilson's play. At one point, Ma Rainey speaks of white listeners' reaction to blues music. ''They don't understand that's life's way of talking,'' she says. ''You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life.''
Mr. Wilson's extraordinary gift is in finding the dramatic equivalent of such music, in which the tone and cadences of sentences define the ineffable in ways beyond mere words. Given this revival's troubled history, its performers may still need more time to summon this spiritual sound. But until that happens, this ''Ma Rainey'' is as flat as sheet music.
Put on a recording, and it sounds the same every time -- particularly in the digital age. Put on a play, by contrast, and the possibilities for new revelations are endless. Of course, so are the possibilities for more disappointing distortions. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," August Wilson's searing play set at a fractious and ultimately fatal 1927 recording session, sounds a bit warped and woozy in the current revival at the Royale Theater. It would be impossible to entirely mute the blazing lyrical and emotional force of Wilson's drama, which in 1984 was the first of his epic cycle exploring the African-American experience in the 20th century to hit Broadway. And Marion McClinton's production, which features Charles S. Dutton in a reprise of his career-making performance as the wounded and wounding trumpet player Levee, is rarely less than entertaining. But it only intermittently taps into the incendiary power of the writing.
Plagued by controversy during rehearsals and previews -- several performers left during the former, the director was briefly hospitalized during the latter -- the production is ill-starred in a more literal sense as well. It is seriously compromised by the miscasting of Whoopi Goldberg in the title role. Presumably recruited for the commercial value of her name -- she's also listed above the title as one of an unwieldy welter of producers -- Goldberg crucially lacks the forceful dramatic presence the role demands.
Wilson's Ma Rainey, a fictionalized version of the "mother of the blues," is offstage during the play's first half-hour, but her absence itself carries dramatic power. When she finally bursts into the Chicago recording studio where the play is set, in a blazing fury, with policeman and entourage in tow, she needs to make up for lost time. By all accounts, Theresa Merritt, in the Broadway original, had no trouble doing so. Goldberg does. It's not a bad performance -- just a fatally underpowered one, both musically and dramatically. Goldberg's voice is too small, to begin with; you half wish someone would hand her a megaphone. Nor does her singing have the style it should.
Most cripplingly, Goldberg is unable to communicate the layers of particular experience embedded in the writing. When Ma muses on the meaning of the blues -- "The blues help you get out of bed in the morning, you get up knowing you ain't alone" -- the beautiful ache in the words registers dryly, bypassing the heart. Ma Rainey's years of exploitation by white men in the music business have coarsened and embittered her. Knowing the only power she has over the world, which is to say the white world, is embedded in her vocal cords, she holds them hostage as long as she can, inflicting petty humiliation on her manager Irvin (Jack Davidson) and the label owner Sturdyvant (Louis Zorich), a small but satisfying revenge for the more profound forms of degradation she's suffered in her years of touring and recording.
Beneath her intractable refusal to record a new version of "Black Bottom," arranged by the musically gifted Levee, is a gnawing fear that her style is growing outmoded, superseded by the new, free-form jazz. These roiling layers of fear, anger and bitterness make the character a rich challenge for an actress, but Goldberg doesn't successfully tap into them; she merely glides along the surface of the writing, never digging into the fertile emotional soil of the words.
Dutton's Levee is both Ma Rainey's foil and the face in the mirror. That she can only exercise her power to keep him down -- and herself afloat, however temporarily -- rather than free them both from the oppression of an industry primed to exploit them, is one of the grotesque ironies that illustrate the play's central theme. At its molten core, "Ma Rainey" is a searing series of riffs on the ways in which the legacies of racism, both socioeconomic and psychological, doomed generations of African-Americans not to self-actualization but to self-destruction.
These themes are most forcefully, and tragically, inscribed in the character of Levee. He is desperate to make it in the white man's world -- Sturdyvant has commissioned a set of songs from him, and Levee has already gathered a band to record them -- but the compromises he must make with his pride imbue him with a smoldering, inchoate sense of self-hatred that he will ultimately project onto another, with fatal consequences.
In one of Wilson's electrifying signature arias of inward recollection, Levee invokes the demons that have haunted him since childhood, recalling his mother's rape and his father's vengeance. Dutton's immersion in the man's torment is both mesmerizing and agonizing. It is often thrilling to witness the way this charismatic performer, nearly two decades after creating the role, can animate it afresh with his exuberant teddy-bear presence, popping his consonants with his distinctive dark trumpet of a voice. He is an uncommonly exciting actor to watch -- and to hear. But there are also times when we are aware the actor is giving us a pre-packaged, pre-approved product -- it doesn't help that Levee's big set pieces, and those of some of the other performers, are carved out from the rest of the play through the manipulations of Donald Holder's lighting, occasionally infusing an artificial flavor into the proceedings.
Indeed, the seams of Wilson's dramaturgy sometimes show rather baldly in the course of the evening. It's too easy to notice the musical construction of the play, as it moves from loose ensemble riffs to artfully constructed solos. But if the play occasionally reveals some structural wear and tear, the material it's constructed of is wonderfully solid: Wilson's ability to fill the stage with distinctive, multidimensional characters -- each with an engaging voice of his own -- remains enthralling. And there are innumerable choice moments, both tangily comic and scorchingly sad, served up by a fine cast of supporting players in the meaty roles of the side men.
Thomas Jefferson Byrd is a singular pleasure in the role of Toledo, the verbally fastidious piano player who dispenses nuggets of African history and home-grown philosophy. The prim set of Byrd's mouth and the expressive gymnastics of his eyebrows gently accent Toledo's more pompous asides, but he brings the right measure of natural gravity to Toledo's more painfully authentic ruminations, as when he notes, "As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say … as long as he looks to white folks for approval … then he ain't never gonna find out who he is and what he's about. He's just gonna be about what white folks want him to be about." Carl Gordon's gruff, businesslike Cutler plays in perfect counterpoint to Stephen McKinley Henderson's lovably laid-back Slow Drag.
As the players exchange their colorful histories of pleasures and pains in between desultory bouts of music-making -- the women they've loved, the violence they've seen, the devils they've encountered -- their free-wheeling interaction creates its own kind of music, every bit as soothing and scorching as the blues they play.
And flawed as it is, this first Broadway revival of a Wilson play is significant in giving another generation of theatergoers a chance to hear that unmistakable music: the spellbinding sound of a great American artist singing the history of his culture from the stage, creating a long, beautiful song out of unfathomable suffering.