Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ma Rainey Review/Blogs to Read

A couple of days ago Centerstage posted my review of Court Theatre's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom here. Very strong production, and I'd never gotten to see the show before. (In fact, this is only the third of Wilson's play's I've seen live, after Two Trains Running in Cleveland and Radio Golf at the Goodman.) Here's the text:

How does an African-American succeed in a white world? August Wilson asks this question in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the 1920s-set installment of his 10-play cycle on black life in 20th-century America, but finds few answers. No matter the material success the characters find, they know they only have power as long as they can make money for their managers. The idea is a grim one, but Wilson's 1984 play, the one that announced his extraordinary talent to the world, is vibrant and gripping.

The play is set in a Chicago recording studio, where personal, professional and racial tensions threaten real-life blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey's (Greta Oglesby) recording session. While the plot has many moments of high drama, it also has many sections when the story pauses to focus on interactions among Ma, her band (James T. Alfred, A. C. Smith, Alfred H. Wilson and Cedric Young), her female lover (Kristy Johnson), her hapless nephew (Kelvin Roston, Jr.), and the white men who work as her manager (Stephen Spencer) and run the record company (Thomas J. Cox). They talk about music, about religion, about history. This is all to the good; Wilson has an extraordinary ear for dialogue, and every single cast member offers a full, magnetically fascinating performance. It's remarkable how entertaining, dramatic and enlightening sections with little obvious incident can be.

If the script has a flaw, it's that the more intensely dramatic sections don't quite fit with the bulk of the script. Ron OJ Parsons's production makes every moment involving; they just don't all always seem to fit in the same play.

But that's a small complaint next to the richness onstage. I've already mentioned the cast, and the show also offers gorgeous onstage blues music (Oglesby's singing is really something) and an unflashy but spot-on design scheme. And when the whole package leaves the audience stung by some uncomfortable questions, it's hard to fault the smaller flaws.

Also, I wanted to let you know about a few new blogs being added to the blogroll that you should check out:

First of is Monica at Fragments. She's an exceptionally intelligent lady who just got to Chicago to start her first year at DePaul. And if she's this sharp and skilled of a writer and critic at 17...well, I'm feeling threatened already. Best of all, she has the dedication to a career in criticism that I probably lack, so who knows where she'll end up, even in these perilous times? I also met her for coffee a few weeks ago, and she's lots of fun in person, too! Thanks to the ever-awesome Leonard Jacobs for introducing us!

Next up is actually a film blog--Tim's Antagony and Ecstasy. Film isn't a passion for me the same way theatre is, but he writes in an exceptionally funny and fluent way on it. He makes me want to see a whole bunch of movies. I think my favorite thing in his archives may be his reviews of genre pictures--even terrible ones--because he spends so much time and verbiage on films that others would dismiss out of hand. If you're interested in film, do check it out.

Finally, lest you think I'm the only Chicago theatre blog (I am certainly not), make sure to check out this one: the clearly named Chicago Theatre Blog. It's a great center for reviews of all sizes of shows in town.

Coming soon (hopefully, you never know): Thoughts on the opening of two Chicago shows on Broadway, an elegy for the delicious pork-barrel job I won't get now that the Olympics are in Rio, and my thoughts on finally seeing The History Boys, as I will tonight!

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