There’s a moment towards the end of Act One during August Wilson’s MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM where “Levee,” an ambitious trumpet player, reveals a traumatic experience during a long monologue. This is not your average collegiate-level soliloquy; yet Geoffrey Hill, a freshman acting major at Northern Kentucky University, delivers it with conviction and truth. And he’s not done. In Act Two, he goes darker, deeper into the psyche of this very troubled man, and we see with heartbreaking authenticity what happens when people suffer loss and pain.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is part of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle,” this one set 1927 in a recording studio in Chicago. The producer, “Sturdyvant” (James Dawson) is already worried about working with “Ma Rainey” (Brittany Hayes) on her newest recording. Ma’s manager, “Irvin” (Ben Cohen) does his level-best to relieve the fears. But he’s anxious, too. Ma Rainey is difficult; she’s the “mother of the blues” after all. And she is used to getting what she wants – whether it’s a bottle of Coke or her stuttering nephew, “Sylvester” (Isaiah Mikel), recording the introduction to her latest song. You don’t mess with her.
Like JITNEY, another of Wilson’s plays in production currently at the Playhouse in the Park, there’s not as much plot as there is character development. That’s not to say that things don’t happen in this play. Lots of things happen. But its the interactions between the characters, their wants, desires, and desperation that drive this story.
Director Daryl Harris gets the most out of his young cast by staging this piece straightforwardly. There are no obvious tricks, just good old-fashioned character development. And it works remarkably well, especially given that the majority of the cast are freshman and sophomores. It’s actually quite something.
Hill impresses, not only with his grasp of the character, but his charm and charisma. He’s small in stature, but enormous in personality. He is on my radar and I cannot wait to see what he does next. Also mind-blowing is the maturity Brittany Hayes brings to “Ma Rainey.” One could easily fall into the trap of just making her a sassy diva; Hayes shows vulnerability and sensitivity, too. And she can sing!
Senior dance major Rhonisa Gentry is sultry and seductive as “Dussie May,” Ma’s . . . friend. Her physicality lends itself to this type of role. Cohen is quite believable as the smooth-talking manager. Other standouts include Isaiah Mikel as the awkward but courageous Sylvester, who with a shy smile and some of his auntie’s sass steals one scene in the rehearsal room right away from the band. The band – especially Landon Horton (“Cutler”) and Kaleb King (“Slow Drag”) – hold their own bringing an old-timey sense of wisdom to their roles. These guys have seen everything; they’re not phased by the outbursts or demands from Rainey. They are amused by “Levee,” until he starts spewing blasphemy’s and his outrageous anger towards God. There’s some really layered acting work here.
The set design by Kenton Brett is stunning. Things are turned backwards from the other times I’ve been in the Stauss Theatre, a very large black box. Brett makes use of every texture, crevice, and corner and has decorated the set with pieces that designate time and place – or how we imagine it, anyway. Ronnie Chamberlain’s costumes look sharp and Terry Powell’s minimalistic yet effective lighting design focuses our eyes where they should be on the vast stage.
The show is far from perfect, of course. Some of the sound cues seem mistimed, some of the acting a little flat, and with the band-members so far away from the audience for the majority of the show, there’s a bit of a disconnect especially in the middle of Act One.
Still, I was impressed with so many elements that do work. And the performances of Hill, Hayes, Horton, King, Mikel, Cohen, and the rest of the cast make this a highly recommended production.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM runs until October 30th at Northern Kentucky University. The show is very likely sold out but you should try to get tickets by calling 859-572-5464 or by clicking here.