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August Wilson wrote of African American life in the 20th century in a series of 10 plays representing each decade.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’’ now at the Multi Ethnic Theater in San Francisco, takes on racism in the music business in the 1920s, when Chess Records and other big Chicago labels were recording the blues.
Blues artists like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey often saw little profit from the “race music’’ recordings they made, and while Rainey was one of the first black blues singers to sign with a major label in the early 1920s, in the years to come, she had fallen on harder times.
As she works in a Chicago recording studio in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’’ she recognizes that her marketable skills as a singer are waning, and that outside the studio on the street she can’t even call a cab.
The focus of the play is the quartet of black musicians waiting for Rainey to show up at the run-down recording studio. The wait is long, and soon good humor and memories of past gigs and happy relationships heat up into feelings of rage about racism experienced, blocked ambitions and personal failures.
Lewis Campbell’s simple stage design shows the four musicians in the small rehearsal studio, initially upbeat about making some money and having a spirited argument about whether they will use the arrangement of the song Rainey wants or a newer one by the trumpeter Levee, the most intense of the group (powerfully played by Nathaniel Montgomery).
Levee and trombonist Cutler (Vernon Medearis), bass player Slow Drag (Gift Harris) and pianist Toledo (Ernest White), the most reflective member of the group, play recorded phrases from time to time as if rehearsing, but the true music comes from their riffs on life, and they get the rhythms of Wilson’s language just right.
In the next room, record producer Sturdyvant (Joseph Walters) and his assistant Irvin (Richard Wenzel) are worrying about the temperamental Rainey, who is usually late and always demanding. She arrives, played imperiously by Susie Butler, who true to form, holds up the proceedings even further by demanding her three Coca Colas, and further insists that her nephew Sylvester (Alex Loi) introduce her songs.
Ma takes advantage of her status in the studio as a singer while reflecting on the indignities a black woman suffers. Butler plays her strong and ferocious, and she sings Ma’s number with gleaming colors. Kyla Kinner is the sassy Dussie Mae, Rainey’s girlfriend.
The cast is excellent, and Campbell’s uncomplicated direction brings Wilson’s rich language to the fore. The players never miss a beat in this dark and difficult play, now showing through Sept. 1 at the Multi Ethnic Theater in San Francisco.
For tickets and more information, visit www.wehavemet.org.