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.