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Saturday night, the Arizona Theatre Company brought Pulitzer and Tony Award-winner August Wilson’s powerful Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to the Herberger Theatre. Set in 1927 at a rundown Chicago Paramount recording studio during one very difficult day, the audience got a slice of what life must have been like for the unapologetic and determined Ma Rainey, “Mother of the Blues,” and her quartet of hard-working musicians.
The play is a gripping drama which takes a look at the price of fame, discrimination, the African-American experience and professional jealousies. The audience gets an eye-opening view of how hard Ma Rainey had to have fought for every ounce of respect during a time when the odds were nothing but stacked against her. Even so, the play was as much about Ma Rainey’s quartet of musicians as it was about her own struggle. As the play unfolded, the audience learned about their stories, dreams, and inner demons as their lives connected—often colliding—during their day at the Paramount recording studio. Very quickly, we realized it wasn’t just about the music. In fact, the play contained very little music.
The cast consisted of a ten-member ensemble of actors, each with a long list of credits. My favorite line from the play? When Ma Rainey says, ”You don’t sing to feel better. You sing because that’s a way of understanding life.” My favorite part? At the end of the first act, Levee, the quarter’s horn player, shares a gut-wrenching story from his youth that had the audience so rapt with attention that you could hear your own heart beat.
If you can, see the play with friends so that you can discuss it afterwards.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom contains mature language and themes. It runs at around 2.5 hours with a 15-minute intermission. The play will run through November 28 at the Herberger Theater Center. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Arizona Theatre Company Box Office at http://www.arizonatheatre.org/