Blues Mama 

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must have been women, 'cause I don't like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan,
Talk to gals just like any old man. — Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey, sometimes called the mother of the blues, spent a night in jail after police stormed her room and found it full of naked women performing lurid acts — shocking even in the Roaring '20s. Long before Bowie got his training bra, she was a strutting, ambisexual super-celebrity adorned head to toe in glitter, sequins, and gold coins. Even before Dietrich donned her first tuxedo for the cameras, Rainey put on men's clothes and posed flirting with two women to advertise her single "Prove It on Me." Needless to say, she did things her way.

Rainey shunned the smooth urban jazz arrangements preferred by contemporaries like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday in favor of slicked-up jug-band arrangements and belted her songs in a raw country-blues style. She defied conventional wisdom and controlled her own career. Paramount records grew from the subsidiary business of a furniture store to a major force in the recording and publishing industries almost entirely on the strength of her artistry.

August Wilson's second major play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, currently onstage at Hattiloo Theatre, is inspired by the singer's headstrong reputation but focuses on members of her backing band who drink, bullshit, and generally avoid the business of getting down to business. And while they're waiting for Ma to sing, the players struggle to define themselves and their relationship to music, history, and the monied white record execs who are powerless without their black talent.

Hattiloo's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom features the talents of Mark Davis, Shadeed Salim, Reggie Hinson, and Ekundayo Bandele, with a powerhouse performance by Valerie Houston in the title role.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" through March 17th at Hattiloo Theatre. Hattiloo.org

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