Ma Rainey´s Black Bottom

REVIEW by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES -- August Wilson's 1984 play is given a vigorous and worthy revival by director Claude Purdy and his ensemble, several of whom have appeared in works by the playright before. (Purdy himself is a Wilson veteran). The experience they bring to the table, plus strong production values and a diva turn by Loretta Devine as Ma Rainey, add up to a winning night of theatre.

Wilson is hardly a tidy, disciplined writer. MA RAINEY runs nearly three hours and suffers from repetitive dialogue and a first act that's almost all exposition and fill, making it little more than a setup for the more compelling second act. Too bad Wilson didn't conceive of the play as a long one-acter; it might have come off as a great play as opposed to a merely good one.

What makes MA RAINEY and other of his equally sprawling, loosely constructed plays work is his gifted way with Black speech and mother-wit. The musicians in Ma's band spend most of their time playing the dozens--swapping insults, jokes and wisecracks. The language crackles and sizzles, makes the audience laugh.

Their battles are joined to the conflict Ma has with the white men trying to run her life: her manager Irvin (Alan Nagger) and record-company boss Mel (Joseph Ruskin). Ma boldly stands up to them by defying them bawdily and imperiously. Purdy has instructed Devine to shout and bark most of the time, resulting in a one-note performance that often becomes trying. On the other hand, Devine (formerly in Dreamgirls) sings a couple of Ma's songs in roof-raising fashion.

The play's main battle is between Leevee (Russell Andrews), a trumpet player driven by racist-planted rage, and Toledo (James Avery), a piano player with the wisdom and humanity of a sage--it's blood vs. intellect. Andrews and Avery are both superb, and the rest of the ensemble--Bill Lee Brown, Thomas Maxwell Brimm, Neferteri and All Freeman--contribute strongly too. Kirk Dauer has a brief but effective scene as a policeman.

Joel Daavid's lighting effects and richly textured set--a 1927 Chicago recording studio--and Lisa Tomczezyn's costumes help give this Equity-waiver production a Broadway feel and look.

At the Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood. Call (323) 960-7735 or visit