Presented by the Classical Theatre of Harlem at Harlem School of the Arts, 141st St. and St. Nicholas Avenue, NYC, Oct. 4-Nov. 3.
In this revival of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," directed by Arthur French, the searing tragedy starts slowly, with some visible flaws, but builds to a loud crescendo.
It is the 1920s and blues singer Ma Rainey (Tamela Aldridge) comes to the city to make a recording to capture her signature style. With her she brings her lover, Dussie Mae (Roz Davis), and her nephew, Sylvester (Ben Rivers). Before her arrival, the musicians assemble in the practice room, rehearse, and talk. This talk is not mere idle conversation, as they discuss everything that is culturally and socially relevant to black men surviving under the burden of racism.
This dialogue among the musicians, replete with imagistic storytelling, reveals their motivations. Tensions develop between the wiser, griot-like Toledo, portrayed solidly by Henry Afro-Bradley, and the impatient trumpeter, Levee, played with unsettling energy by Leopold Lowe. Levee insists on playing his version of the "Black Bottom" because the white studio owner said he should, while the musicians tell him repeatedly that the song is Ma's domain.
The determination and aggressive spirit of Aldridge as Ma Rainey set the drama on fire. Bristling confrontations with both Levee and the white manager, Irvin (Jerry Matz), quiet any dissension.
When the session is over, Ma fires Levee. His hopes are further crushed when Sturdyvant (Ronald Rand) informs him that he has changed his mind and is not going to record his songs. Humiliated and frustrated, Levee abruptly strikes out at Toledo over a minor infraction.
Charles Turner is a natural as Slow Drag, a bass player. Allie Woods is the less-opinionated Cutler, and Michael O'Day plays an angry cop.
French's direction is lax in the earlier scenes, but in the second act his influence is more tangible. Set design by Anne Lommel is startling in contrasts. Period costumes by Kimberly Glennon are well tailored. Kelvyn Bell is the genius behind the musical direction.