The Ostrander Awards, Memphis' answer to Broadway's Tony Awards turn 30 this year, and a big change is being made to better celebrate the Memphis theater community and this important milestone. I could tell you all about it but it will be a lot more fun if you clicked on this special video message from Sister Myotis, who returns to host this year's ceremony.
I'll be writing much more about this in the weeks to come, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, please share this message from all of us, with all of you friends who love live theater.
Special thanks to founding sponsors Memphis Magazine, and ArtsMemphis. And to Morgan Jon Fox for shooting and editing the video.
Not yet anyway. But if Sister says it's big, y'all better all believe.
The message, as it was shared unto me:
If you want entertainment, go see Miss Saigon or Brighton Beach Memoirs. If you want to experience a harrowing slice of life from the perspective of a disadvantaged, mentally ill woman who's committed murders she can't begin to comprehend, you won't want to miss The Ballad of Angie Awry, presented by Our Own Voice Theater Troupe.
"In the past, I've avoided doing any kind of play where a mentally ill person does something bad, because the stereotype is that they're all a bunch of serial killers," Bill Baker says cautiously. As the founding director of Our Own Voice, Baker works with like-minded artists to explore issues and ideas related to mental health. With his new play, The Ballad of Angie Awry — a play on the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity legal plea (NGRI, get it?) — Baker is simultaneously exploring new territory and getting back to basics.
"Basically, I've tried to get inside of a person who commits a horrible crime," Baker says. "In the first act, all of her hallucinations are experienced by the audience. We get this extra information, the voices, the paranoia, the heightened trepidation. In the second act, I take that away so the audience is no longer subjectively inside the character. They are looking at things from the outside, as most of us do when we're watching someone with a mental illness on trial."
Baker isn't excusing the crime. "We will certainly recognize that what she's done is wrong," he says. "We'll also understand the obstacles and judgments that led her to these actions, and, hopefully, there will be some compassion for her."
Baker describes Angie Awry as a Brechtian tragedy at the crossroads of the justice and mental-health-care systems, inspired by Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and legislation that would prevent the use of the death penalty in cases where a defendant has a severe and persistent mental illness.
What do we mean when we say Brechtian? In this case it's a deemphasization of traditional theatrical elements like spectacle, fancy dress, and slick acting. Although Baker says the aim of his teaching play is compassion, that may be an over simplification. The audience, being exposed to information the characters don't always have, is shown why compassion is appropriate, even in the midst of horror, when the blood is calling out for vengeance.
OOVs work is fascinating, but it simply isn't going to appeal to everyone. I hate making that disclaimer when I review the group's work, and only do so because the company values a completely different set of theatrical principles than what most people are accustomed to. It's my sincere wish that more people would try a sample, and Angie Awry, with its relatively straightforward narrative, seems like a good place to start. Although it's not a musical, a folk trio has been incorporated into the story, narrating, and commenting on Angie's pitiful circumstances with an extended acoustic ballad that, contemporary references aside, could have been penned a hundred or more years ago. It's this ballad that most firmly connects Angie Awry to something more than a single moment in history, and implants her story deeply in our consciousness.
Our Own Voice Theatre Company presents The Ballad of Angie Awry at TheatreWorks, Through May 11th. $10.
James, a foreign correspondent (Michael Gravois) who's spent his entire career/adult life documenting the atrocities of war complains about how Americans, of a certain class and disposition, go to see plays that reinforce previously existing worldviews and self-images. We go home basically unchanged, he argues, but feeling like we’ve meaningfully engaged with the world and its woes. Like driving with your headlights on to show you “support the troops,” these personally affirming, but hollow rituals, James suggests, make people feel like they are participating when they're only consuming, and are more aligned with problems than with solutions.
As a nicely-imagined counterpoint to all of this Margulies has given James a new obsession. He’s becoming a critic, fascinated with bloody snuff-fluff cinema and convinced that the Saw series, and similar torture porn says something unexpected about the modern condition. He’s just not sure what, exactly.
Time Stands Still wallows in visceral sado masochistic pleasures. After James more or less reviews the first act of the play he lives in (potentially insulting a swath of the audience along the way) it’s difficult to experience the drama as anything but another kind of commodity. It's difficult to not see selfishness and hypocrisy at the core of everything the main characters do. It makes arguably brave, intelligent, committed people look petty and small, and impossible to like as they pursue unique personal comforts like addicts, while managing more common obstacles like injury, insult, and infidelity. Normally, that might not be a good thing, and that's why this play is special.
The play’s jabs at the audience, and the ritual of live performance are bracing and the big themes emerging in act one crumble as the political turns personal.
The basics: Set in an in a nice but neglected Brooklyn apartment Time Stands still chronicles the quickly evolving relationship between a small group of longtime friends, lovers, and ex-lovers.
James returns home to cope with the nervous breakdown he suffered after seeing one too many kids blown to bits. Sarah, a respected photographer, and James’ life partner (Leah Bray Nichols) follows shortly thereafter when her body is similarly ripped apart by a roadside bomb that kills her guide.
Sarah, the intellectual daughter of wealthy Southern Conservatives, is badly injured, permanently scarred, and grief stricken. She is entirely unable to imagine the kind of mundane upper middle-class life James is trying to embrace.
James and Sarah eventually formalize their relationship with marriage vows. They observe the ever-expanding happiness their old friend Richard (Barclay Roberts) seems to have found in his new, somewhat gooey, romance with a sweet, simple (and extremely young) woman (Katelyn Nichols). The previously unthinkable possibility of children is broached. But life is messy.
Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends, has a gift for finding incredibly funny moments in incredibly dark and disturbing places. His most effective joke here is, perhaps, the one that never gets a laugh. Richard, a magazine photo-editor, is helping to create a coffee table book of Sarah's photography. Because nothing speaks to the comforts of home and hearth like a beautifully made coffee table book full of severed limbs and phosphorous burns.
Over and over again Margulies pulls back the curtain on hollow social transactions, and the casual commercialization of foreign suffering by very extremely serious people who know the score and care deeply. Or something.
“You’re the Sid and Nancy of journalism,” Richard says to James and Sarah at one point. This Romantic grotesque couldn't be a worse comparison. It is, however, a perfect example of how people in media instinctively, "sell the sizzle," not the steak. Margulies, on the other hand, is trying very hard to move beyond the usual tropes of socially aware performance, to get a little closer to the red, red meat of things.
Deftly directed by Stephen Hancock, and beautifully performed, Time Stands Still is a great night of theater doing what theater does best. If you miss this Circuit Playhouse production, you’re missing one of the best and most provocative shows of the season.
To acquire tickets.
Everything you need to know about the HSMAs in one convenient video.
Last year's big winners Sam Shankman and Sabba Sharma— who I interviewed here— were featured in the PBS miniseries Broadway or Bust.
Tickets are $15-$35 and go on sale to the public May 6.
People's Choice Award voting begins on May 10, 2013.
The Orpheum Crew was created to cultivate the next generation of Broadway Theatergoers.
The April 23rd launch pcoincides with the Opening Night of MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL. To RSVP or request aditional information, digits: 901-529-4287 or email@example.com.
As Greg, a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Randy Hartzog took the less-is-more approach and came out on top. Greg's a man who loves his dog (and what’s wrong with that?). And he's confused by an increasingly hermetic world that has disease-a-fied even the mildest imitation of passion.
Okay, that was a false start. But that's what I wrote, more or less, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and-mumblemumblmumble, when I reviewed the second (I think) of director Ann Marie Hall's three productions of Sylvia. Flash forward (mumblemumble) years and Hartzog, who knows the piece intimately, is in the director's chair at Theatre Memphis, staging one of the shaggy dog story's best productions yet. The set: perfect. The cast: perfect. Lighting, costumes, sound design: Perfect, perfect, perfect.
So why did dead-half of a show I thought I (mostly) liked leave me colder than a polar bear's dirty martini? I've been asking myself, and friends, the same question.
Sylvia is still the story of two New York empty-nesters and (of course) Sylvia, the stray dog that comes between them. It’s yet another A.R. Gurney sitcom, featuring a variety of WASPy dilemmas served on a bed of WASPy relationships, dusted with WASPy wit, and smothered in sentimentality. Scary? Very. Awful? By no means. It's a real Scooby snack: a sweet that would rot your teeth in no time given a steady diet of the stuff. Delicious? Yes. Nutritious? Probably not, but it tastes so good, who cares?
That last paragraph, is also from a past review, mostly.
Aliza Moran's performance as the home-wrecking mutt might provide a bit of insight for theologians wrestling with the concept of a being both fully human, and fully divine. She's one hundred percent human and completely canine. If all performances had this degree of specificity and commitment there would be no need for critics — it would all be good.
As Greg, a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Tony Isbell takes the less-is-more approach and comes out on top. He is a man who loves his dog (and what’s wrong with that?) and... wait, isn't this where we came in?
Sylvia has moments of inspired, if lowbrow comedy. When a dog calls a cat a cocksucker, that's just funny. But the show hasn't aged especially well. The problem is Kate, Greg's wife, a teacher re-entering the workforce after the last kid has gone off to college. She's got a WASPY savior complex, and is driven to bring Shakespeare to inner city kids with their raps and rhymes. She is, at once, the only responsible adult in the show, and the villain of the piece. Most of the piece anyway.
When Greg brings a dog home Kate—strongly portrayed by Bonnie Daws Kourvelas— puts her foot down. Because dogs require a lot of work and something about her career and teaching Shakespeare to inner city kids. Her position never fluctuates. Until the play absolutely positively has to end.
She's a straw wife, existing only to serve a few functional purposes. Our modern woman provides the show a modicum of conflict and social context but in the end she'll compromise her dreams to allow for her husband's mid-life indulgences. And they live happily ever after, more or less.
Sylva's obviously not just a dog. She's a stand in for many possibilities: A sports car, some extreme hobby, or a common affair. The dog is literally another woman, and jokes about her cute little ass are an end run around straight objectification.
But it's funny, right?
When it's funny, it's very funny. Moran, a strong, physically changeable performer with a real knack for comedy gives as virtuoso a performance as you're likely to see this season. Spencer Miller is superb as both a dog loving bro and a profoundly white woman.
But I don't think I like this play very much. And when this Sylvia finally runs off, I hope she stays gone.
And she's gone after this weekend.
Ticket information here.
Guest Director Nick Hutchison has staged a beautiful production of Shakespeare's somewhat naughty As You Like It at Rhodes College. But I have to admit, the Wednesday night preview occasionally left me scratching my head and thinking decidedly un-Shakesperean thoughts. "WTF," for example.
Hutchison's previous production of Twelfth Night at Rhodes was top notch, and, as I have already reported, I had an absolute blast sitting in on a team-taught Hamlet class that the RSC-bred actor/director helped to lead. So, I was more than a little surprised to find myself occasionally struggling to stay engaged with the first of Shakespeare's comedies that (thanks to a no-holds- barred 80's- era production by a young Nashville Shakespeare Festival) I ever truly fell in love with. This production, like Hutchison's Twelfth Night, delights in the meaning of the words, rather than the words themselves, but unlike the earlier effort, there are some odd character choices, and the words and actions aren't always fairly matched.
If you need a synopsis, that's what the internet's for. Intermission Impossible attracts a fairly literate crew and I expect most readers know the story of Orlando, Rosalind, an exiled Duke, and a variety of clowns that journey from the city to the country and discover love in its infinite variety.
Many of Hutchison's more theatrical choices— the sort of non-literal choices I usually revel in— seemed like the stubs of interesting ideas, barely realized. I was especially confounded by the stylized finish to the wrestling match. Did young Orlando win his match or did Charles the wrestler have an aneurysm? Also, confetti boxes exploding as if at Orlando's command, had no precedent, or ensuing rhyme. So they stood out as an odd gimmick. Although, for those willing to stoop at intermission, it was nice to see the name "Rosalind" — Orlando's love — written on the tiny slivers of paper.
In many ways Hutchison's As You Like It resembles his Twelfth Night. There are scenic resonances, and cast members returning in similar roles. Steven Brown, whose Malvolio, is among the best I've seen, has returned, and is a convincing Jaques, if not as colorful as the grumbly former libertine might be. Likewise, Donald Jellerson, a brilliant Feste in Twelfth Night, showed real promise, but often seemed unsure of himself as Touchstone, the syllogism-spouting clown, who's in love with a shepherdess, but not the idea of settling down.
The student work was uniformly solid, though some character choices were questionable. I'm never comfortable laughing at a character someone has randomly designated as a fop, merely for the sake of the comic potential found in broad stereotypes. That happened. And there was a strong sense — at least on the night I attended — that everyone needed more run-throughs. Obviously, time has passed since the night I dropped by, and I would be very interested to see how the show has grown in a week.
It's probably easy to read this as a review filled with complaints. And I suppose that's what it is. But it's really more of a review full of questions in the form of statements and disagreements that are more quibble than qualm. Others may be un-bothered by the inconsistencies, and happy to play along. For me, what's proving to be special about a Nick Hutchison production, is the rare, and wonderful opportunity to see actors— especially young actors— playing Shakespeare's characters, not acting Shakespeare. It's a quality that smooths over imperfections, and difficult to quantify. It's also why you might want to see this show whether my review makes it sound appealing or not.
For deets, here.
I have mixed feelings about how actors and audiences should handle ringing cell phones. Part of me thinks all action should stop and everybody should stare daggers at the offending party. Another part thinks "the show must go on," and anything else is an even greater interruption. Anyway, what follows is a slightly edited version of a rant by Memphis theater stalwart Tony Isbell, who is currently starring in Sylvia at Theatre Memphis alongside Aliza Moran and Bonnie Daws Kourvelas. This is his description of an event that occured during a Sunday matinee, and I'd love to collect readers' thoughts on the matter.
I did something on stage today that I have never done before. I stopped the performance because of a ringing cell phone in the audience. Allow me to elaborate...
Bonnie [Daws Kourvelas] and I have a short scene [near the end of the play]. In the [audience], a phone starts ringing and it was loud. The lady had one of those rings that literally sounds like the bell on an old rotary phone. Two ladies were sitting on the front row in the Next Stage, which means they were sitting on the stage floor itself. The phone was obviously in the purse on the floor between them. Ultimately the phone rang between 12 and 15 times.
Here is the sequence:
1: The phone starts ringing. Bonnie and I tried to continue.
2. The phone rings about three times. I turn and stare at the woman giving her a nasty look. I can see one woman turn to the other. I can read her body language. She indicates "Should we get the phone." The other woman indicates, It'll stop. This makes me very angry.
3. Bonnie and I try to continue the scene. The phone keeps ringing. I turn to the woman and say, "Would you please turn that phone off?" Both women sit stone-faced and do not move. Bonnie, bless her heart, tries to keep the scene going for another line or so. The phone is still ringing, now up to 8 or 10 very loud rings.
5. I turned to the audience. I say, "Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for this, but seriously, turn that phone off. The lady still isn't moving.
6. Finally, as I stare, one woman starts to reach for her purse. Then, after all that, the phone stops ringing.
I have been tempted to stop performances before but I never have. But I've got to tell you, this is kind of like losing your virginity. The next time will be a lot easier.
So, did the actor overreact or do the right thing? This sort of response has become increasingly common, it seems. But cell phones aren't going away, and accidents do happen.
If it's Springtime it's New Ballet Ensemble time. And if there has ever been a time for New Ballet Ensemble, it is now. This has been the blow up season of Memphis Jookin, especially as the street-born style has impacted classical culture, and gone global. NBE is the nexus where these two worlds first collided and this progressive dance school continues to experiment with classical, modern, and folk forms from Memphis and around the world.
This year's SpringLoaded concert showcases new work from Alan Obuzor, inspired by his Nigerian heritage and also a new fusion of flamenco and Jookin developed by Noelia Garcia Carmona with dancer Shamar Rooks and multi instrumentalist Roy Brewer.
‘Springloaded’ by New Ballet Ensemble. Playhouse on the Square. 7 p.m. Friday, 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $20; $10 students.
Ready to Weareth
What the well dressed Shakespeare Company is wearing this season.
I'm so in the mood for the Tennessee Shakespeare Company's Hamlet, which opens Friday at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens. It's partly because this has been such a cold and foggy Spring, I suspect. And partly because, as I was so recently reminded while sitting in on a completely unrelated class, it’s a fun show when action is suited to the word.
I’ve often wondered if Hamlet knows he and Ophelia are being watched by Polonius in the "get thee to a nunnery" scene. But I’ve never heard a more compelling case for this idea than one made by actor/director Nick Hutchison in a class he’s been team-leading with Dean Michael Leslie of Rhodes College.
Book of Mormon! is coming to the Orpheum. I can't believe it!
Why, it seems like only yesterday...
(For best enjoyment play the Youtube clip before going any further)
I was sitting in Pat Halloran's office, admiring the photos on the wall behind him, while the Orpheum's President and CEO waxed eloquently on racehorses, his still-new proposal to build a performing arts education facility, and why, in spite of its nine Tony Awards and popularity, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's musical, The Book of Mormon, would never be a part of his theater's Broadway subscription series.
I was working on a piece for Memphis (the magazine), about Memphis (the musical), and trying to get a handle on the business of show, what it means when the Orpheum invests in musicals like Memphis, and how the Broadway season is built.
Halloran had a point as strong as it was frustrating. Although BOM would almost certainly attract single ticket buyers, and possibly even sell very well, he had to think of his season ticket buyers. He didn't think the demographic was overflowing with South Park fans.
For some perspective on the kind of 3-D chess Halloran was playing, The Book of Mormon, still running on Broadway, recouped its $11.4-million investment in only 9-months while the similarly capitalized Memphis, made its $12-mil back in just under two years, moving from the red to the black shortly before it closed in August, 2012. At a time when many shows struggled, Mormon cruised. Its cast album reached number three on the Billboard charts making it the first musical soundtrack to crack the top 10 in 42 years. That would seem like a slam dunk, but, as the old saying goes, the three hardest dates are Christmas, Easter, and Memphis.
Since I brought it up, Memphis (the musical) , which did its namesake city a solid by opening a highly praised national tour here, I should probably mention it makes its second stop at The Orpheum in April.
The possibility that BOM might dock at the Orpheum was never dismissed. Spring Awakening, a differently provocative musical made a one-night-stand at Beale and Main once upon a time, so anything was possible. Halloran just didn't see subscription material, and I'd assumed he meant forever. So I was surprised to the point of being downright giddy to see Parker & Stone's dirty little musical closing a 2013-14 Broadway season. And let's be honest, The Book of Mormon, Warhorse, and to a lesser degree Wicked and West Side Story help to prop up a season front-loaded with spottier material.
BUDDY - THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY
This popular show is an especially jukebox-heavy version of the jukebox musical. It's more Million Dollar Quartet than Jersey Boys and, as anybody who caught Playhouse on the Square's strong 2008 production knows, storytelling isn't the strong suit. But you could do worse than to spend an evening with some of the most infectious Rock-and-Roll songs ever recorded.
Flashdance , featuring the original movie's hit title track and Michael Sembello's "Maniac," has never been on the Great White Way, so it's a bit of a misnomer to include the 1980's film-turned-musical on a "Broadway" season. It did spend some time in London and producers of the revamped American version hope to ride this tour all the way to a New York City opening.
Like Billy Elliot, and Footloose, and The Full Monty but with 100% more wet lingerie, Flashdance is a blue collar dance fantasy. It follows the triumphs and travails of a female welder with a chance to study dance, who picks up extra money working at a shake shack. So far reviews have been mixed.
Look, another musical based on a not-that-classic movie. Not to be confused with any of the Nunsense nonsense, this one-time Whoopie Goldberg vehicle tells the story of an earthy nightclub singer who hides out among the nuns after witnessing a murder. So, if you can't resist a good Nuns acting out of character story, this one's for you.
WEST SIDE STORY
Yeah, it's an old chestnut. But I'm here to tell you, that Leonard Bernstein score still kills.
A Chorus Line took its first bows in 1975, 25-years before the reality television phenomenon took hold, 31-years before American Idol ever trended on Twitter, and 34-years before Glee took the personal/performative crossroads to new pop culture heights. Considering Michael Bennett's master plan to interview/audition a bunch of chorus dancers, musicalize their stories with Marvin Hamlisch, then, where possible, cast the original contributors as themselves, the material would lend itself to a radical, post-reality makeover. I'm not recommending that, mind you, but it's hard to not view A Chorus Line without also considering its progeny. Remarkably, with so much scripted reality under the bridge, the material almost always seems fresh. And the best thing about A Chorus Line today is that it still only requires the theater's barest essentials. Two boards and passion are enough. Toss in a spotlight and you're loaded for bear.
Directors typically treat the original production of ACL as a blueprint, and, while one might long to see some new light through old windows, it's also interesting to see a show handed down from from the source, with the aid of artists like McKechnie, and Mitzi Hamilton, another original collaborator who directed and choreographed Theatre Memphis' last production of the show.
Performing artists cope with rejection and humiliation like nobody else. They regularly hear maddening criticisms like, "You were too good," "Too pretty," or "You were just a little too right for the part." It's a weird world where landing a hemorrhoid commercial and the honor of telling the world about your hemorrhoids can be the most exciting news in years. The job makes a person incredibly self-reflective.
"For this, I studied Shakespeare," you think. "For this, I have struggled so hard? So I could be rejected for work that a respectable department-store Santa would turn down?" You look in the mirror and every defect is magnified. You know for a fact that your breath stinks, your nose is too pointy, you're aging badly, you can pinch an inch (and change), and on top of all that the last casting director didn't say anything and the one before that said he was looking for somebody with less polish, and you don't have any idea what that means.
Anyone who has ever been a working actor can tell a dozen stories about a life under weird, subjective scrutiny. The Hamlisch & Kleban songs, especially "At The Ballet," "Tits and Ass," and "Nothing," get at the angsty core of a career performer's predicament, and are just about as good as clever and multifaceted as anything that ever dripped out of Sondheim's pen. "What I did fo rLove," became an instant standard, and instant kitsch. Add to this all the dancing — good, glorious, and often (intentionally) awful — and you've got a show.
If you've seen any production of A Chorus Line before, Theatre Memphis' production will be instantly familiar. The staging is just about as traditional as it gets. With rare exceptions the only things that really change, from production to production, are the performers, whose honesty and willingness to swing for high fences, always make the difference between a limp retread, and a play that is, somehow, forever young and fresh.
Theatre Memphis' cast features the talents of Chris Cotten, Shannon Sparks, Guillermo R. Jemmott, Jr., Chris Hanford, Leah Beth Bolton, Lynden Lewis, and Noelia Warnette-Jones. They rise to the challenge in every way. In spite of the monologues, this is an ensemble piece and singling anybody out would be wrong. That said, let me be wrong and say that the Ostrander judges need to create a special, "Whatever It Is You Just Did, That!" award for Emma Crystal, who's a knockout as Sheila, an aging knockout.
Theatre Memphis' production is directed and choreographed by Josh Walden, with associate director/choreographer Adam Lendermon and music direction by Gary Beard. Eric Sefton designed sound, and Jeremy Allen Fisher designed lights.
Nothing about this show is original. Nothing disappoints.
For tickets and times, here you go.
In conjunction with the opening of Angels in America, Playhouse on the Square created a memorial to members of the Memphis Theater community lost to AIDS in the early days of the epidemic, when a diagnosis was automatically a death sentence. Here's the video portion of that memorial.
"All the boys in the neighborhood
They say your black bottom is really good
Come on and show me your black bottom
I want to learn that dance" — Ma Rainey's "Black Bottom."
"Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?" — Langston Hughes, "A Dream Deferred"
In every production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom I've ever seen— including the one currently on stage at The Hattiloo — the acting has been low key, verging on cinematic. The material is given the straight Checkhovian treatment even though the play often reflects the sensibilities of experimental dramatists like Bertolt Brecht and Jean Paul Sartre by way of Douglas Turner Ward. Huge passages of the script play out like an angry, American answer to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and if Ma Rainey is actually about anything, it's about waiting, a key feature of African-American oppression that can be found everywhere, from bondage to Booker T. Washington's accommodationist philosophy, to revisionist historians who still insist that slavery would have ended naturally, without federal intervention or war.
Of course there can be no waiting without the presumption that something is going to happen: emancipation, equality, opportunity, etc. In this case the band waits for Ma Rainey, Ma Rainey waits for her Coca-Cola, and the white management waits to get on with the business of building Paramount Records.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom isn't much of a story in and of itself, but it's filled with stories and storytelling. It's a play built out of bits, pieces, full of con games, clown shows, and hard lessons about the difference between real power and bullshit. The best one sentence summary I can offer: A white man gives a black man a dream and that dream deferred destroys the lives of two black men.
Rainey isn't the star of this play. She's the side show attraction, bossing around the white management, like they weren't exploiting the hell out of her. Her musicians, $25-a-day session players all, are the rubes at this carnival, who are kept in suspense by the management, and finally brought in to view the marvel when it's time to record.
The major characters aren't what you'd call positive role models. Rainey got her start singing in minstrel shows and like Brecht and Beckett who took some of their inspiration from cabaret performances, Wilson seems to have borrowed from negative stereotypes common within the minstrel tradition. His musicians can be clownish, but are infused with just enough hardscrabble humanity to give them dimension, as they drink, dope, brag, and generally avoid the business of getting down to business. They speak nonsense and wisdom in equal measure then argue over which is which. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom shouldn't be regarded one of Wilson's most accessible plays. It's not a "VH-1 Behind the Music"-style documentary for the stage. It's a savage cartoon about whites effortlessly manipulating African Americans, and the African Americans who unwittingly, play right into their hands. It should be garish, and obvious to everybody but the players.
There's nothing wild going down at the Hattiloo. Aside from Valerie Houston's blazing star turn as Rainey, everything is a little too cool for school. The acting is fine, the design for the crummy recording studio looks like a crummy recording studio. All things considered, it's not a bad night of theater. But without an edge, material that should smack us out of our work-a-day stupors just lays there.
The Hattiloo's multitalented founding director Ekundayo Bandele doesn't get on stage too often, and when he does it's usually a special occasion. This time, not so much. His character Levee is, in some regards, like Brooklyn hipsters of today, who mostly migrated from somewhere else and are trying so hard to walk, and talk like the authentic embodiment of their adopted home that they end up looking ridiculous. Bandele's Levee doesn't hide his country roots and comes across a lot like the slow-talking man-child he portrayed in his own play Judas Hands. It's the artist's first real miss and his least interesting performance since he took on Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
The song in question...
Complaints aside, if you miss Houston as Rainey, you've missed what will surely be counted among the finest performances of the season. She's an Ostrander contender, for sure.
For tickets, click.