By James Foritano
BOSTON – “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” currently on stage at the BU Theatre, is a volatile brew of sex and danger, exploitation, oppression, death and the devil. But you wouldn’t know that from the dilatory conversation of the ‘boys in the band’ — four black musicians assembled in a Chicago recording studio to rehearse and wait for the arrival of Madame ‘Ma’ Rainey.
It is the 1920s and New Orleans-inspired music is leaking slowly northward as the Great Migration rolls from every southern city and hamlet towards Chicago’s burgeoning ghettos and jazz dens. This music, though, is not the ‘hot licks’ that will erupt from the horns and drums of isolated rebels, but the tamed product, the ‘jug band’ music, with just enough sass, but not too much, to enliven but not threaten white audiences.
August Wilson’s finely-drawn characters practice that restraint, that affectionate but no ways lethal ‘sass,’ as they wait for the fabled ‘Ma’ Rainey, intermittently rehearsing ‘her song’ and gently teasing each other with long, winding parables of growing up in the segregated south while building themselves a fragile manhood as, if not artists, then artisans and survivors.
Not only the ‘boys,’ but also the white businessmen, figuratively and literally, above the band’s practice room, behind the thick glass of a commercial recording studio, await the fabled Ma’s arrival. Ma Rainey (played by Yvette Freeman) is the ‘boys’ meal-ticket, small but steady, and oh their obeisance to her artistry is absolute; the two white business men, Sturdyvant (Thomas Derrah) and Irvin (Will Lebow), cool less respectful but equally restrained heels, since Ma may be black and uppity but is, nevertheless, their No. 1 milk cow.
Ma, from long experience, knows her status vis-à-vis white men, but also knows the value of her artistry, which she will only soar when she is good an’ ready — and then only for cash on the barrel and the many small favors that keep her ‘whites’ running and fetching.
Ma, or Madame, when she stands on her volatile dignity, is beautifully controlled as both an artist and a personality. She has ‘made it’ in a white man’s world and she is going to keep her slice of the pie, however exiguous.
Ma’s alter ego is Levee (Jason Bowen), a young trumpeter who doesn’t quite fit into the ‘jug band’ music and gentle, mostly resigned, repartee of ‘the boys.’ Levee is ‘on the make’ as a boldly original musician and a personality reaching for the stars of stardom.
But Levee, we realize, is not only dangerously immature, but perhaps even stunted by enduring the violence of southern segregation when he was a mere child.
Levee’s experience has left him literally with a scar, a hidden brand, as though one of humanity’s outcasts. The story he tells himself and his audience does not fit neatly into the peppery reminiscences of the other ‘boys in the band’; they are almost a barbershop quartet as they sooth and blend the harsh edges of each other’s individual stories into a sweet-sour melody.
But the balm of fellowship lies uneasily on Levee, it must be applied again and again by those who have learned to compromise — those ‘boys’ in the band. And still it erupts like ‘hot licks’ not just from a boldly original trumpet, but a soul on fire amidst dangerous tinder.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the story of a time and a place and of an ‘everyman,’ living then and now. August Wilson scripts a clear parable, a folksy, bluesy reminiscence of the love and the emptiness that empowers the human soul to creation or destruction.
(The Huntington Theatre Company’s presentation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” continues through April 8 at the B.U. Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Call (617) 266-0800.)