Musical, racial and interpersonal tensions form the backdrop for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, University Theatre's latest production, opening March 2 in Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre.
Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, the play involves blues legend Ma Rainey - often called the "mother of the blues" because she encouraged younger artists like Bessie Smith - and her group of musicians. Taking place over the course of a single day, August Wilson's drama builds to an explosive conclusion that will make audiences think.
Part of Wilson's 10-play chronicle of African American life in the 20th century, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award in 1985. Its name refers to a now largely forgotten dance craze, though attentive fans of PBS' Downton Abbey caught a reference to the black bottom in the last episode.
The production is helmed by theater professor Patrick Sims in his UT directing debut. It offers trenchant commentary on "the pressure of being African American in the North in the '20s, particularly in Chicago," says Sims. "It's Jim Crow at its worst in some regards. [The musicians] are from the South, and they're acutely aware of the dynamics of traveling, of being looked at with suspicious eyes. It's a pressure-cooker environment."
The play offers a showcase for two grad-student actors who will be completing their MFA degrees at the semester's end. Says Sims of Jaki Terry, who plays Ma Rainey, "When she came to our program, I knew I wanted to do a show that catered to her strengths. To have a substantial role to showcase her stuff was important."
Though the real-life Ma was known as a motherly figure who looked after others - even buying them instruments and clothes - playwright Wilson's depiction shows a tougher side. "It's a commentary on the need for people of color, particularly black women, to assert themselves," observes Sims.
The hot-headed trumpeter Levee, played by Trevon Jackson, is also a pivotal role. "He's a tragic hero, full of potential and hope, but he's flawed and doesn't understand that he can't do it all by himself," says Sims "It's a wonderful metaphor for young men of color, [and how] when you're fed up and boxed in, there are these moments when folks lash out."
Joining the student cast is Alfred Wilson, a veteran professional actor well known on Chicago and Milwaukee stages.
Set amid the gritty glamour of the 1920s and the racial disparities of the music world - when white producers frequently took advantage of black artists - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom promises to be a powerful exploration of rich themes.