New Jersey Stage
New Jersey Stage on social media


Tune into Radio Jersey with Lee Mrowicki every Monday through Friday from 6pm to 8pm
Broadcast on Asbury Music!

Last Week For "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Two River Theater

By Gary Wien

originally published: 10/03/2016

Last Week For "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Two River Theater

(RED BANK, NJ) — Sadly, there are just seven performances left of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which closes on Sunday, October 9 at Two River Theater.  In what might be August Wilson’s angriest and most powerful play, Two River provides the definitive August Wilson production. Everything from the cast to the set is absolutely perfect.  If you have not been able to see the production yet, grab tickets for the remaining shows while you can.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, part of Wilson’s American Century Cycle, takes place in the 1920s in a Chicago recording studio.  Ma Rainey is a famous black blues artist (Known as “Mother of the Blues”) who is the record label’s top selling artist.  She also is quite a piece of work — as much of a diva as could be expected by a black female artist of the day.

In the opening act, we hardly see much of Ma Rainey at all.  Instead, we see the record label owner, Sturdyvant (played by Peter Van Wagner) and the band’s manager, Irvin (played by Michael Cumpsty) set up the studio followed by the members of the band, Slow Drag (Harvy Blanks), Toledo (Brian D. Coats), Cutler (James A. Williams), and Levee (Brandon J. Dirden) practicing, joking, and waiting for their boss to arrive.

Last Week For "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Two River TheaterThe band is an interesting mix from the business-like pair of musicians Cutler and Slow Drag to the highly educated Toledo and the ultra talented Levee.  The latter two have friction from the get go - based on everything from education to musical aspirations.

“You read too many books,” said Levee.



The article continues after this ad

 


“What do you care how much I read?” replies Toledo.  “I’m going to ignore you ‘cause you ignorant!”

August Wilson sets up the play with a very simple premise — the band will record the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and other tracks.  Unfortunately, there is a disagreement on which version of the song to play — Levee’s new arrangement (seemingly taking the blues closer to the emerging world of jazz improvisation) or the traditional version which includes a spoken intro.  When Ma Rainey (Arnetia Walker) finally arrives, it becomes clear which version they will do — she says they are recording the traditional version with her nephew Slyvester (Marcel Spears) providing the introduction.  The only problem is that the boy stutters.

The first act is tremendously funny, luring us into a very different place than the play will eventually take us.  Race and the struggle between the races has never been on display more for Wilson than in this play.  He also manages to show how white American took advantage of the talents of black artists, specifically how the music industry used them - as much for the music as the product itself.  It's difficult to watch this play and not think back to how the blues, jazz, r&B, and hip-hop all basically originated from black artists only to become part of white America as well.  This play reveals the sense of pride and the sense of loss as the artists themselves witness the changes.

At times, it can be very unnerving.  If you want theatre to challenge you or take you to places of the human condition that people tend to avoid, this is must theatre.  From the set design reminiscent of a plantation with the boss man high above the slaves to the back stories of the musicians and the generation gap between them, the play is full of uncomfortable situations — especially for a white audience.  Yet, its powerful message is inspiring.  It reveals the harsh truth about how freedom not only failed to change everything but may have simply rewritten the rules.  Seeing this production in the era of Black Lives Matter takes on an even more powerful and rather unique message.

Last Week For "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Two River Theater

Two River Theater continues to give August Wilson’s cycle the productions they deserve.  In my opinion, Wilson is every bit as important to the American theatre as Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams.  The entire cast is amazing and gets to take advantage of one of Wilson’s greatest gifts — the ability to fully utilize an ensemble to its utmost potential, offering everyone a scene or two in which to shine.  Highlights for me include Brandon J. Dirden’s deeply layered portrayal of Levee.  He isn’t just a cocky, young performer; he is a man that you just know has a back story and it’s a doozie. James A. William as Cutler will have you hearing his count off for each song for days afterwards — “a one and a two, you know what to do.” Arnetia Walker brings just the right amount of sass and confidence for Ma Rainey, while Brian D. Coats gives a great portrayal as Toledo, the elder philosopher trying to better himself.  But the true scene stealer is Marcel Spears as the stuttering Sylvester.  Anybody that has ever tried faking a stutter will appreciate the magic Spears does on stage.

Expertly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this is August Wilson at his best, backed by a stellar team.  Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is the fourth production of the cycle by Two River (following productions of Jitney, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars) and each one seems better than the last.  Here’s hoping they keep the cycle going…

Two River Theater is located at 21 Bridge Avenue in Red Bank, NJ.  For more information or to purchase tickets visit www.tworivertheater.org

All photos by T. Charles Erickson

 




For more by this author, click here






Holmdel Theatre Company Presents 'ART'
(HOLMDEL, NJ) – The Holmdel Theatre Company (HTC) will present 6 performances of Yasmina Reza’s ‘ART’  from December 7th through December 16th. Translated from French by Christopher Hampton, the play tells the story of what happens when Serge buys an expensive painting, and the reactions of his two closest friends, Marc and Yvan, to his purchase. As what begins as a discussion about the quality of the painting that Serge has purchased quickly devolves into petty jabs and personal attacks, the three men border on destroying their friendships.
Pebble Players Presents "Heathers, the Musical: High School Edition"
(SUMMIT, NJ) -- Celebrating their 10th season, Pebble Players has been entertaining Summit residents and audiences from surrounding towns with sophisticated Off-Broadway quality performances. The 2018 Season opens with "Heathers The Musical: High School Edition," directed by Jayne Myers and choreographed by Jaimie Woodruff.  Performances are Friday, November 16 and Saturday, November 17 at 7:30pm and Sunday, November 18 at 2:00pm. 
NJPAC Presents Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies
(NEWARK, NJ) -- New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) presents Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies from Thursday, March 21, 2019 - Saturday, March 23, 2019. The high-style music of “The Duke” is the heart and soul of this 1981 Tony-winning Broadway hit, directed with dazzle by André De Shields (The Wiz). Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke Ellington, re-creates the original show’s elegant dancing and tapping as choreographer.
Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater present Teahouse by Lao She
(PRINCETON, NJ) --Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present Teahouse by Lao She on November 16, 17 and 18 at 8:00pm and November 17 at 2:00pm in the Donald G. Drapkin Studio at the Lewis Arts complex on the Princeton campus. Teahouse is considered a masterpiece of contemporary Chinese theater, spanning 50 years in modern Chinese history from the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Republican Revolution to the birth of the People’s Republic, bringing together over sixty characters who represent all walks of life. The production is directed by senior Changshuo Liu.
Axelrod's Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts Program Presents "Peter Pan"
(OCEAN TOWNSHIP, NJ) --  A family musical that’s perfect for the holiday season, “Peter Pan” is flying onto the Axelrod stage December 8-16. Axelrod’s award-winning Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts program presents one of Broadway’s timeless classics in a fully staged production directed by Lisa Goldfarb with musical direction by Randy Hurst and choreography by Wendy Roman.  


Broadway’s Next H!T Musical LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center
It’s Friday, October 26, 2018, and the Broadway’s Next H!T Musical cast is just about ready to take the stage at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts, located on the campus of Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ.
The Last Apple Pie: "Apples In Winter" Opens At Centenary Stage
Jennifer Fawcett’s new play centers around a mother in a kitchen, doing something countless people across America will take part in over the upcoming holiday season: making an apple pie.
See Andrea McArdle LIVE! in Annie at Deal Park’s Axelrod PAC!
Leapin’ Lizards! Annie’s finally made it to the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park, NJ, and it stars Broadway’s original Annie, Andrea McArdle, as Miss Hannigan!
"It's a Blast!" Go See Rock of Ages 10th Anniversary Tour NOW! at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino!
The five-time Tony award-nominated Broadway musical, Rock of Ages, returns to the stage with a 10th Anniversary Tour at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino! Performed in the venue’s ultra-modern Sound Waves theater, Rock of Ages runs from now until November 4, 2018.
There's One In Every Family: "Charley's Aunt" at The Shakespeare Theatre
On stage now through November 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, “Charley’s Aunt” is described as “part Oscar Wilde, part ‘Fawlty Towers,’ with a dash of South American spice!” This side-splitting British farce from 1892 has drag, mistaken identity, romance and plenty of physical comedy. Join Jesse and Dave at rehearsals in Florham Park to hear from the cast and director what makes this such a hilarious and enduring show.






Event calendar
Thursday, Nov 15, 2018


MUSIC

New Politics @ House of Independents, Asbury Park - 8:00pm

THE REPUTATIONS @ The Saint, Asbury Park - 7:30pm

TOTO @ Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), Morristown - 8:00pm


THEATRE

An Actor's Carol @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 7:30pm

ANNIE, The Musical @ Axelrod Performing Arts Center, Deal Park - 8:00pm

Apples In Winter @ Centenary Stage Company - Kutz Theater of the Lackland Center, Hackettstown - 7:30pm

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat @ The Levoy Theatre, Millville - 7:30pm

Spring Awakening: The Rock Musical @ Black Box PAC, Teaneck - 8:00pm







DANCE

PARSONS DANCE @ State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick - 8:00pm


FILM

Crybaby Matinee: March of the Penguins @ Hopewell Theater, Hopewell - 11:00am

View all events










 






















For more on our awards, click here








New Jersey Stage © 2018 by Wine Time Media, LLC | PO Box 140, Spring Lake, NJ 07762 (732) 280-7625 | info@newjerseystage.com

Images used on this site have been sent to us from publicists, artists, and PR firms.
If there is a problem with the rights to any image, please contact us and we will look into the matter.